Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Obama's message to environmentalists

(CNN) -- President Obama unveiled plans Wednesday to open large swaths of U.S. coastal waters in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas drilling -- a move likely to please the energy industry but upset the administration's environmentalist supporters. 
When this policy was being discussed in the White House, do you think at any point a worried Rahm Emanuel turned to an equally anxious David Axelrod and said, "sure this will please the multinational oil companies, but what'll we do about the environmentalists? What. Will. We. Do?"

No, I imagine a quite confident Barack Obama called up all the heads of the big environmental groups and said something more like, "what'cha gonna do, vote Republican? Yeah, didn't think so."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Barack Obama: He's not your friend, but what if he was?

(Barack Obama discussing his top secret plan for ending the wars)

Imagine you have a friend -- let’s call him Barry -- who seems like a swell guy, a real class act. He’s got a beautiful wife, two kids, gives blood, volunteers at the local health clinic on the weekends, even gives a pretty good motivational speech from time to time. Sure, he slaughters the occasional family here, wipes out a funeral procession there, but unlike some cold-blooded murderer, some monster, he does not revel in the senseless violence. No, he laments every death caused by his regrettable but escalating savagery. Did I mention he plays a pretty mean game of basketball?

Now hold up, most people with functioning brain stems and consciences might say. Nice guy though he may be, the whole killing of innocent men, women and children thing? Yeah, not cool. Kind of a buzz kill, actually. Bit of a deal breaker.

Unless you’re talking about Barack Obama. Then complicity in murder -- and the extrajudicial killing of not just precious blonde-haired, blue-eyed American citizens, but hundreds of Afghans and Pakistanis -- becomes an unfortunate, maybe even a tragic thing, but not bad in a I’m-not-going-to-vote-and-campaign-for-you sort of way.

Dennis Kucinich, for instance, while denouncing the president’s decision to send another 33,000 troops to Afghanistan and questioning the constitutionality of the conflict, confessed to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that while the surge would undoubtedly be a waste of lives and resources, “You know what? To me this isn't even about the personality of the president, whom I admire.” Speaking later to Esquire on why he was voting for a healthcare bill he had ripped to shreds on policy grounds just days before, Kucinich cited a “a higher responsibility” to “my president and his presidency.” The Ohio congressman went on to say that a victory on healthcare was essential so that the power of the president would not be “weakened,” arguing that with passage the “president will have a stronger hand in domestic and international affairs, and that will be good for the country.” Nowhere in his 2,300-word remarks on the need to boost the president's popularity did he mention any of the ongoing wars and military occupations for which his friend Obama is responsible.

At the signing of the bill, he not just figuratively but, with a smile on his face, literally embraced the president.

Michael Moore, meanwhile, in a letter to Obama on the eve of his decision to expand the Afghan war declared that with that one move he would “destroy the hopes and dreams so many millions have placed in you. With just one speech tomorrow night you will turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics.” But at the same time, and after the president had already expanded the war soon after taking office by nearly 20,000 troops, Moore implored Obama to “listen to your heart, and your own clear thinking,” adding: “We the people still love you.”

After the decision to expand the war, which brings weekly tales of the atrocities that always accompany military occupations and counter-insurgency operations, there probably are a few more Obamaphiles turned disillusioned cynics -- but Moore isn’t one of them. “You're such a good guy, Mr. President,” he writes in a more recent correspondence.

The tradeoff seems to be this: in exchange for a president that can speak in complete sentences and not embarrass Americans in front of Western European audiences, and who is willing to throw a few more crumbs to the middle and lower classes, liberals will accept a little murder abroad. Oh, there might be an open letter or two, but few are willing to call the current occupant of the White House what he is -- a war criminal with a million dollar smile -- instead going to great lengths to defend this administration, working earnestly to support Obama’s agenda even when it’s entirely at odds with their own stated views.

This isn’t something new, by the way. When the U.S. military was killing Vietnamese by the tens of thousands in the 1960s, many rank-and-file Democrats and the whole of the liberal establishment were willing to put up with a little senseless murder abroad in exchange for Lyndon Johnson’s promise of a “Great Society” at home. Even after pressure from the antiwar movement forced LBJ to give up his reelection bid, the Democratic nominee in 1968 nonetheless was Hubert Humphrey, a bland pro-war liberal. And given the orgiastic glee with which today’s liberals and progressives greeted the passing of a healthcare bill even proponents are lukewarm about, can you imagine how much murder they’d put up with in return for something like Medicare?

Of course, this probably isn’t the trade-off the president's liberal supporters imagine they're making, and I don’t doubt that people like Moore and Kucinich are sincere in their opposition to the Afghan war, if misguided in how to end it. But their view of the president as a man, or rather what they imagine him to be, colors -- distorts -- their views of his policies, resulting in some embarrassing attempts to excuse Obama, The Man We Thought We Voted For, for the policies enacted by Obama, The Man You Actually Got. Sadly, all too many liberals and progressives remain captivated by the former Obama ™, the persona they’ve been marketed these last couple years: the philosopher-king who probably right this moment is sitting by a fireplace, taking notes and sipping Earl Grey while absorbed in his reading of Rawls' A Theory of Justice. Like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, though, it’s a shame it doesn’t really exist.

But this isn’t to say Barack Obama, personally, would strangle to death an innocent Afghan villager, either, or that he begins his day by biting the head off of a cute little kitten (that was always more Cheney’s style). If he bumped into you in the hallway he’d probably say “sorry,” and if he was making a pot of coffee he might even ask if anyone else wants some. But what Obama’s defenders fail to realize is that while he might seemingly be an all-around nice guy who loves his children, someone you could have a beer with if that’s your metric, even nice guys are capable of real evil when they need not experience firsthand the consequences of their decisions. The killing will always be done by somebody else, not the great statesmen -- outside of Iraq, that is -- which is why the study of history can often feel like nothing more than the study of one war after another, each one more barbarous than the one before it. When it's someone else's life on the line, not your own, even the most righteous and well-intentioned will be more inclined to risk it.

And while Obama might seem like a nice, smart guy who tucks his kids in and gives them a kiss on the forehead good night, remember that because of his decisions there are Pakistani and Afghan fathers who will never get to do the same. And remember too that Obama chose to escalate the war on terror within mere days of taking office, when he could have gone ahead and eaten that kitty during a live press conference with Angela Merkel and still have seen a bump in his poll numbers, signing off on a drone strike in Pakistan that killed 18 people before even moving his orthopedic chair into the Oval Office. As documented by the New America Foundation, Obama has continued the bombing ever, dramatically increasing the use of drones in Pakistan -- a country, mind you, with which the U.S. is not officially at war -- killing more than 500 people since taking office, likely many more, a third of them civilians. Weeks later Obama sent another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing his escalation of that war since taking office to roughly 50,000 troops and at least that many private contractors.

If you’re into peace, love and understanding, well, Barack Obama just isn’t that into you. It’s long past time to stop making excuses for the man and break those last emotional connections. It’s also a good time to remember all those things you were told when you were little about how killing people is very bad, and that, you know, you really shouldn’t do it; at least to my mind, that lesson applies even to powerful people -- taking the life of another not becoming excusable because a simple majority of eligible voters who managed to get off work and bothered to head out to the polls voted into office one of the two corporate stooges allowed on the ballot, or because killing a few foreigners is an unfortunate but vital step to securing a second term.

Getting on my soapbox: Once you come to grasp the basic moral truth that murder does not become acceptable simply because a majority of registered voters lucky enough to be born in the world's most powerful country sanction it, nor is one’s complicity in it lessened by the fact that some 18 year old kid pulls the trigger for you -- that politician’s deserve to be held to the same standard of accountability to which you’d hold a casual acquaintance -- then it becomes a lot harder to maintain the fiction that Obama is not stained with blood shed by his wars. But then I haven’t been reading Daily Kos lately.

The Afghan war summed up in a quote

We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat."
-- General Stanley McChrystal, New York Times, "Tighter Rules Fail to Stem Deaths of Innocent Afghans at Checkpoints"

Friday, March 26, 2010

Why can't we be friends?

A note to progressive and liberal readers: I critique you because I love you. No, really. That I don't comment much on the right-wing Tea Party types is not because I have any sort of affinity for them, or because I'm not well-aware that their idea of "fascism" is giving brown people food stamps, but because most of them are already too far gone and have never shown much interest in opposing war and wanton destruction it brings, their passion for protecting human life not extending to those unfortunate enough to live outside of an American woman's womb. On the other hand, many liberals and progressives -- even the party-line partisans (update: damn, must have been the coffee) -- demonstrate some awareness of the fact that the terrorists want to kill us not because we're free and listen to bad pop music, but because our government has often done some very bad things to poor people in far-off lands. That's why I find it unfortunate that so much of the liberal left has bought into, hook, line and sinker, the myth of Barack Obama, a man that has only expanded the state-sponsored killing. No, he hasn't launched a preemptive invasion of his own, but he's maintained and institutionalized the vast majority of the Bush foreign policy agenda, adopting the same lies about an Iranian nuclear weapons program U.S. intelligence agencies say doesn't exist and even extending the war on terror to places like Yemen, killing numerous civilians in the process.

My purpose in writing isn't to smugly shame those with which I disagree, or to simply mock those so blinded by partisan politics they can't come to terms with the fact their vaunted leader is a war criminal -- though this is a blog, on the Internet, and I can't say I've never given in to the temptation to be more scathing than constructive. Rather my intent is to encourage those on the left to maintain their principles, to not accept a little imperialism abroad in exchange for some paltry "reform" at home. If violence is what you abhor, then by definition the state -- the greatest purveyor of it -- is what you should oppose, even when the man dropping the bombs casts himself as a worldly liberal rather than a Texas hick. I'll have more to say later...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Liberals with guns: scarier than Tea Partiers

I often begin my political science courses with a brief introduction to the idea of "the state." The state is the entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, force and coercion. If an individual travels to another country and kills its citizens, we call it terrorism. If the state does it, we call it war. If a man kills his neighbor it is murder; if the state does it is the death penalty. If an individual takes his neighbor's money, it is theft; if the state does it, it is taxation.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell* is a professor at Princeton University, as so subtly alluded to in the above excerpt from her latest drivel for The Nation, and she's concerned about the "legitimacy" of the state -- a legitimacy she assumes but doesn't explain -- which she notes some backwards reactionaries have had the temerity to challenge in the age of Democratic government. Now, considering that U.S. government imprisons more of its own citizens than any other in the history, with 25 percent of the world's prisoners; that it has more military bases in more countries than any previous empire in history, and has killed millions of people from Iraq to Vietnam; and that its current head, Barack Obama, is openly targeting for extrajudicial killing Americans and foreigners alike, one might ask: why is a liberal magazine so concerned about this state's legitimacy?

Because of the Tea Party movement, you see, whose flashes of racism and disrespect toward politicians is of more concern to Ivy League academics than the "legitimate" state violence they applaud. Tea Partiers, by accusing the current administration of "various forms of totalitarianism . . . are arguing that this government has no right to levy taxes or make policy," the professor writes, apparently under the mistaken belief that most taxes the state levies go to gumdrop bridges and fairy dust health clinics, rather than less wholesome things like aircraft carriers and daisy cutters. Rather than focusing on what the state actually does, though, Harris-Lacewell, like most liberals, would prefer we focus on their shining, abstract ideal of what it could be, while sanctimoniously dismissing those who see no distinction between state-sponsored and private sector murder, an approach befitting the wait-until-you're-called merit-class liberal mentality that dominates the Democratic Party and the progressive press.

As The Nation's house political scientist explains it, adopting an argument that one could never imagine being applied to the left, "When protesters spit on and scream at duly elected representatives of the United States government it is more than act of racism. It is an act of sedition."

Put another way: offenses against the state are inherently more despicable than any offense one could commit against some poor schmuck civilian. An overstatement? Well, no, as Harris-Lacewell herself demonstrates in writing about Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), who "is no longer just a brave American fighting for the soul of his country- he is an elected official. He is an embodiment of the state." Yeah, you know, before Lewis just marched in the streets against racism and state-enforced segregation as a (ho-hum) private citizen, but now he chairs a subcommittee -- show him some respect!

Hooting and hollering at an elected official -- sorry, "an embodiment of the state" -- might give liberals at The Nation the vapors, and right-wing protesters who cheered on the Bush administration's abuses of power may not be my cup of tea, but color me unimpressed with the argument that I have more to fear from the talk radio right than I do the incarcerating-and-assassinating state. Now while there's little chance you'll catch me marching against compact fluorescent light-bulbs or Obamacare anytime soon -- though I promise nothing -- I just don't fear a rollback of the Reconstruction period "and the descent of a vicious new Jim Crow terrorism" as much as I fear and abhor the actual, happening-right-now terrorism carried out by my esteemed public officials with the tacit approval of the humanitarian progressives too busy lecturing the rabble on the need to pay taxes and pledge allegiance to their betters in Washington than to challenge their leader's wars. In addition to the hundreds killed without so much as a show trial by hellfire missiles since the glorious advent of The Liberal Ascendancy, agents of the U.S. government have been implicated in several headline-grabbing atrocities, the latest of which involved the pre-dawn slaying of a pair of pregnant women and a teenage girl. That female civilians are being killed at a level on par with Afghan males is no doubt being hailed in the halls of Brookings as a feminist triumph, but it's more troubling to me than the idea of some people questioning the legitimacy of the perpetrators' employer.

Perhaps they shouldn't just be ignored, but until Glenn Beck's followers kill two dozen people in a remote village, I'm going to spend most of my time focusing on those with control over the tanks and nuclear weapons. And rather than seeking to bolster the state and reinforce the idea of some mythical, mystical social contract, I just might seek to undermine this government, so far as I can, for as long as it continues enriching a politically connected corporate elite while imprisoning and enlisting the rest of its population, no matter how "duly elected" our politicians might be as a result of the sham two-party electoral system. When political leaders are engaged in senseless war and widespread human rights abuses -- and the occupation of Afghanistan and the U.S. prison system at home and abroad qualify -- the person of conscience's duty is not to the state but to justice, which usually means opposing the state and questioning its presumed legitimacy.

The proper attitude toward a criminal government is not deference and respect, however much some at The Nation might love a smooth-talking Democrat, but defiance and rebellion -- of the non-violent variety.

*I originally wrote Maria Harris-Lacewell.

Update: Read the follow-up to this post.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A lesson for Afghans from the healthcare debate

(credit: AP)
The Great Victory over the health insurance lobby now achieved with Congress' passage of a bill that mandates you buy the industry's products, inexplicably popular progressive blogger Matt Yglesias tells us "Barack Obama will go down in history as one of America’s finest presidents" -- barring, that is, some sort of "unrelated fiasco that mars his reputation" (presumably this means "blow job," not "unprovoked and illegal act of military aggression"). Democrats now in power, the victims of the U.S. government's imperial agenda of course no longer serve as useful fodder for the professional liberal class in Washington -- you can't blame their deaths on a bumbling and unpopular Texan, after all -- with Yglesias acting as if Obama's reputation has not already been stained with the blood of his drone strikes and the obsequious partisans at Daily Kos, who once upon time penned tedious 3,000-word jeremiads denouncing George Bush and the GOP for their killing of innocents abroad, now spending most of their days mocking Glenn Beck and praising their historic leader's historic-ness, happily relegating his illegal wars and troop surges to the dark recesses of their fawning, feverish minds.

To regain liberal sympathy, I offer a suggestion: the victims of Obama's wars in Afghanistan, PakistanYemenSomalia and Iraq should seek to qualify their respective nationalities as preexisting conditions. Or move to Darfur.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Party over principle

When push comes to shove, the party almost always beats principle, as any casual observer of politics can tell you. Yielding to intense pressure from liberal bloggers and Democratic leaders, including President Obama himself – I'll leave it to readers to decide who yields more influence in Washington – Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) today announced he will be voting for the Senate healthcare bill, despite its lacking the much-ballyhooed “public option” so dear to the heart of progressive activists.

This shouldn't be that surprising. While certainly one of the more free-thinking members of the Democratic caucus – and one of the few members of Congress to oppose all wars, not just those launched by Republicans – Kucinich, when all is said and done, is still a good party member. After all, despite the heaps of scorn heaped upon the man by smug partisans like Markos Moulitsas for his supposedly ego-maniacal runs for president, both in 2004 and 2008 he ultimately endorsed his party's pro-war nominee, even though his views more closely align with those of the anti-war Ralph Nader, as I noted in this interview (by contrast, Republican iconoclast Ron Paul urged his supporters to vote for Nader or a number of other third-party candidates).

As for the healthcare bill he's now endorsing, here's how Kucinich explained his opposition to the legislation last week on Democracy Now:
I think that we have to ask ourselves why we would have a circumstance where, you know, a week or two before a vote would come, that it would be said that this is going to come down to a single member of Congress, who stands for healthcare for all, Medicare for all, who stands for a public option, who stands to protect right of states, to pursue it, and yet, we should sweep all that aside in favor of a bill that gives the insurance companies a lock on health insurance in America, privatizes the health insurance—$70 billion-a-year subsidy to the insurance industry. 
I mean, I have a responsibility to take a stand here on behalf of those who want a public option. There’s about thirty-four members of the Senate, at least, who have signed on to saying they support a public option. If I were to just concede right now and say, “Well, you know, whatever you want. All this pressure’s building. Just forget about it,” actually weakens every last-minute bit of negotiations that would try to improve the bill. So I think that it’s really critical to take this stand, because without it, there’s no real control over premiums. Without it, we have nothing in the bill except the privatization of our healthcare system. 
Something obviously changed since Kucinich said this to Amy Goodman. It wasn't the bill.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The face of modern liberalism

Markos Moulitsas is the founder of Daily Kos and self-satisfied leader of the left-leaning "Netroots" community of bloggers, best characterized by their fervent devotion to the perpetual process of electing "more and better Democrats." When not helping raise money for the same party that endorses locking up hundreds of thousands of Americans for non-violent drug offenses -- and whose rule has brought us progressive achievements like the surge in Afghanistan and the official policy of killing citizens without so much as a judicial rubber-stamp if they travel to sufficiently swarthy countries and associate with the natives -- Moulitsas is busy enforcing Democratic orthodoxy and party dogma, his latest threat of an ineffective primary challenge coming against poor old Dennis Kucinich* for the sin of failing to endorse the White House and congressional leadership's corporatist, pharmaceutical-insurance-complex-boosting joke of a health care reform bill.

"[I’m going to hold] people like Dennis Kucinich responsible for the 40,000 Americans that die each year from a lack of health care," Moulitsas declared on MSNBC this week. Tough words. Now, here's who he promised to support primary challenges against after 189 House Democrats voted to extend the war in Afghanistan, against a measure offered by the dastardly Kucinich, thus ensuring NATO forces will continue killing Afghan civilians at a healthy pace: ____________. That silence is a reflection of an awful strange and morally dubious set of priorities.

Liberals being so proud of their cosmopolitan, humanitarian credentials, in their minds standing in stark contrast to those neanderthal, SUV-driving Republicans, one would imagine they'd place a little more priority on their politicians, you know, not killing poor foreigners in multiple countries with which the U.S. is not even officially at war, and a little less on mandating that all Americans purchase the appropriately demonized health insurance industry's products (idea for solving starvation in the developing world: mandate everyone buy food!). Question the wisdom and morality of that, though, and prepare to face the nastiest epithet a good party-line Democrat can conceive of: Naderite. Hell, it's even worse than being called a Tea Bagger to folks like Moulitsas, defensive tirades and smug derision the immediate reaction toward anyone who dare whisper the long-time consumer advocate's name. Ralph Nader is to Democrats what Judas is to Christians -- partisan politics being very much a religion, sharing all the idolatry and corruption but, unfortunately, neither a hint of grace nor beauty.

As Moulitsas explains it, Kucinich's opposition to the health care bill is "very Ralph Nader-esque" -- you can almost see Josh Marshall mouthing "buuuurn!" As often the case with religion, politics promotes a narrow-minded view of the world and its possibilities, one fraught with internal contradictions like the Democratic tendency of blaming Nader for eight years of George Bush when most Democrats supported and are currently institutionalizing the worst excesses embraced by the former president. To committed partisans, however, the failure of the Democrats to enact the supposed Democratic agenda has only one obvious solution: elect more and better Democrats. Take Moulitsas' smug and revealing "tweet" to those who question singling out Kucinich for condemnation and not the awful health care bill -- to say nothing of the Democrats voting for more war in Afghanistan: "What I'd really like to know is how many Kucinich-bots have contributed to Bill Halter in Arkansas. But that would be DOING something..."

It is kind of a cute, in a way, that a glorified online fundraiser who attacks non-partisans with venom and obscenity usually reserved for Holocaust-deniers and Republicans thinks he has an impact on policymaking, and believes this to be the case because he works to elect former Clintonite non-entities like Halter, whose campaign site informs of you of little more than his square jawline. That he sees this as the ideal means of "doing something" and affecting change proves Rahm Emanuel's assessment of liberals right, if for different reasons, as diverting activist resources to the electoral process ignores the fact that all meaninful change comes not from politicians, but from social movements -- and that the state, once established, exists to quell calls for radical change, not undertake it; to maintain the existing power structure, not upend it. Those paying attention not to rhetoric and politicking, but to policy and its implementation in the real world -- including the Middle East, which seems not be an issue to liberals when its fellow liberals doing the bombing -- are well aware of the essential continuinty in governance despite the nominal changes in power. This is evident to most "Kucinich-bots," I'd assume, but apparently not to Mr. Daily Kos and his devotees, calling into question who are the real mindless drones.


*I interviewed Kucinich back in 2007 about his run for president, the Democratic establishment, bipartisan militarism and his endorsement of the pro-war John Kerry.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

War, brought to you by 'anti-war' progressives

Back when President Bush was in office, -- a self-styled progressive "pro-military" group dedicated to electing more and better Democratic veterans of foreign wars -- was concerned about a possible military confrontation with Iran, launching a campaign with that photogenic war criminal Wesley Clark that blasted the administration's "sabber rattling" and stressed the need for engagement, warning that tough-sounding accusations and rhetoric only threatened to accelerate "a dangerous slide into war."

Now that we have a new administration, though, the folks at VoteVets appear to have come to terms with saber rattling and fearmongering on Iran, embracing it themselves to further the Democratic agenda in the most demagogic, Liz Cheney-esque fashion possible. Articulate Barack Obama, not bumbling G.W., now president, the group has dropped the inconvenient anti-war rhetoric in favor of running a series of "tough" jingoistic ads designed to sell the public on the imperative of "passing a clean energy climate plan" on the dubious basis that it'll cut in half petroleum imports from bad, swarthy countries like Iran and -- well, no, just Iran, the latest ad featuring the mandatory black and white video of Iranian president and evil incarnate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (boo! hiss!) scheming about how he can use his oil riches "against us." Oh and by the way, did you know AhmadeniNextHitler invented the deadly form of IEDs that are killing our brave men and women in Iraq, and that if you don't support the Democrats' cap-and-trade bill you hate the troops? Just watch for yourself:

Criticizing the White House's numerous unsubstantiated claims of an Iranian nuclear weapons program and coy references to "all options" being on on the table is no longer useful to the primary goal of all good and well-behaved progressive organizations: electing Democrats, the more (but not necessarily better) the merrier. Thus we see ads like this, which besides adopting misleading "energy security" rhetoric to sell a climate bill -- the power sector, the focus of Democratic plans to cut carbon emissions, relies mostly on coal, not oil, meaning cap-and-trade will do little to cut oil imports to the U.S., much less reduce global oil use and the revenues flowing to countries like Iran -- also adopts long-debunked Bush claims about Iran creating EFPs, explosively formed penetrators, specifically to pierce American armor.

As the Columbia Journalism Review noted in 2007, back when this talking point was last in currency, numerous factories that manufacture EFPs have been found by the U.S. military inside of Iraq, and their simplistic design means they can be easily made without the help of an outside state actor. But all this ignores the fact that U.S. troops aren't even being killed in great numbers in Iraq anymore, having mostly retreated to their fortified bases, and that when they were, it was mostly Sunni Iraqis -- not Shiites allied to Iran -- that were blowing them up. And of those foreigners who came to Iraq to fight the U.S. occupation, the vast majority came from Sunni Saudi Arabia, not Shiite Iran, though the blame for all American and Iraqi deaths ultimately lies with those who ordered the invasion of Iraq in the first place. So why the hell is VoteVets not only exploiting fears about Iran in general, but this lie in particular? Marketing.

Groups like VoteVets that are de facto arms of the DNC don't really care about stopping wars, or rolling back the U.S. empire, of course. No, all that really matters to is electing, and reelecting, Democrats, even if that means fueling the flames of the next confrontation. Iran is the enemy du jour, the country viewed least favorably by Americans, most of whom already believe it has nuclear weapons, and thus the best to associate with opponents of the Democratic policy agenda. VoteVets representing Iraq and Afghanistan vets, though, it needs some sort of tie to Iran to justify its sensationalistic use of exploding IEDs and decorated Iraq veterans to sell said agenda: enter the Iran-created-EFPs-used-in-Iraq fiction. Like their neoconservative brethren, that something's not true is no obstacle to its being deployed in a liberal media campaign, the ends justifying the means and other rationalizations.

As evidenced by VoteVets' dusty, neglected campaign at, stopping another war from happening in the Middle East ceased to be a concern to the professional liberal movement -- if it ever was more than a fleeting anti-Republican position -- the moment Bush left office. Nowadays, if exploiting fears about the Persian Menace can be used to help Obama and the Democratic Party in some form or fashion, rest assured VoteVets and other Blue Team role players will not think twice about doing so, especially since demonizing foreigners has the added co-benefit of demonstrating one's essential reasonableness and respectability within Washington circles. It could have rather unfortunate consequences for the Iranians, though, but so what? Iran ain't a battleground state (yet).

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Conservatism: the heart of progressive reform

Teddy Roosevelt was by any measure a monstrous buffoon, an avowed racist and imperialist who saw war as a societal tonic -- only for the victor, presumably -- and fervently believed in American exceptionalism, empire and the flaunting of military might as the path to national greatness. While donning the mantle of progressive reform, Roosevelt left intact most of the financial trusts he was supposedly determined to bust, making a show of superficial changes to national policy designed not to rein in the power of the economic elite, which accepted and often championed the ostensibly liberal reforms, but to protect their interests from more radical calls for change -- and revolution. It is for these reasons, one can only assume, not because of them that Roosevelt is so fondly remembered by the bipartisan establishment in Washington, defining as he does the political class’ faith in “corporate capitalism” and a more “merit-based civil service” (read: Ivy Leaguers like them) as the key to progress, in the words of former George W. Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.

Now Gerson, co-author of the phrase “axis of evil” -- yes, it took more than one person -- is the sort of power-worshipping hack only the Bush administration and the Post could love; the kind of man who could only thrive in DC, typifying as he does the condescending, nose-in-the-air Beltway attitude toward all the yokels who question whether people like them should really be expounding on, much less crafting, policy for a nation of 300 million people. If I spent the time responding to all his tedious, lifeless prose, it would be as lengthy and worthwhile endeavor as spending the rest of my life electing more and better Democrats in the pursuit of Peace In Our Time. But, the dude makes a few good points, inadvertent though they may be, and obscured by heaping loads of smug derision for the so-called Tea Party movement and the “Beck/Paul platform” -- a conflation between Ron Paul, a non-interventionist libertarian, and Fox News’ Glenn Beck, a pro-war demagogue that has accused the former of treason, that displays a rather remarkable lack of attention to detail. The snide dismissal of the right-wing rabble, in this case for failing to worship at the altar the Rough Rider, is indeed so grating it's enough to make one want to head over to the nearest townhall meeting and, in a display of solidarity with the tea partiers, shout “Nazi baby killer!” at the county commissioners -- anything just so as to not feel any sort of sympathy for a stance held by Michael (obscenity) Gerson.

In the midst of heaping praise on former president Roosevelt and claiming those who would question his standing as a great man are engaged in an “ideological scrubbing” of history -- as if “history” is some sort of physical science, the prevailing view of which is not already heavily influenced by ideology -- Gerson does make an important observation: while ‘ol Teddy may have times sounded like a no-good socialist fighting for the common man, “it was Roosevelt's political purpose to avoid a revolution.” Rather than using state power to upend the existing economic order, he sought to preserve political capitalism -- the collusion of politicians and capitalists in the drafting of state economic policy -- and to use the guise of populism and “incremental reform to diffuse radicalism.” Though by no means “laissez faire,” Gerson observes that the use of the state to stave off threats to the ruling economic order and enhance the power of political elite -- my words, not his -- is well within “authentic conservative tradition”, acknowledging the lie of the GOP’s oft-invoked fidelity to the "free market."

The point is well taken: though Republicans claim to their base to represent an ideological counter to the godless Democrats, their "free market" policy proposals are without fail statist in nature. Likewise, while often cloaked in progressive rhetoric, much of what passes for liberal reform is conservative and reactionary in nature, crafted with an eye more toward preserving the status quo than overturning it. Reforms, such as they are, are intended to stave off calls for more radical, systemic change by making the existing power arrangement more sustainable, a few crumbs tossed to the poor and certain politically favored constituencies only so far as is necessary to prevent a couple thousand pitchfork and torch-wielding proles from showing up outside their elected representatives McMansions.

There are those who push for reforms with a genuine desire for change, of course, acting on the honest if naive belief that regulation can be enacted -- and implemented -- along the progressive lines favored by activists and policy wonks. But such reform efforts imply a strong belief in the underlying system and institutions to be reformed, and as historian Gabriel Kolko writes about the so-called early 20th century Progressive Era and the push to regulate various industries under Teddy’s reign, it was “big business [that] led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy.” To be sure, “well-intentioned reformers often worked with them -- indeed, were often indispensable to them," he notes, but that "does not change the reality that federal economic regulation was generally designed by the regulated interest to meet its own end, and not those of the public or the commonweal.”

In a world of thousands of competing concerns, very few people are going to spend their time learning about, much less lobbying on, any given federal regulation. Attend a hearing about some regulation and, lo and behold, chances are most seats will be taken up by people with a direct financial interest in how the process unfolds. It’s a microcosm of politics, really. A company with a significant financial interest in the outcome of the regulatory process is, not surprisingly, going to care a whole lot more and dedicate both time and money to ensuring it helps shape the final result. Outside a few do-gooders and the occasional crazy, not many are willing to do that. Government regulation is an easy way for established interests to keep out upstart competitors, permits and licenses being much less of a financial burden to a large corporation, intellectual property laws -- laws that forbid the mixing of life-saving but “patented” chemicals and the unapproved use of images and ideas -- a clear example of established financial interests utilizing the political means to ensure a revenue stream, it being a much easier way of making money than competing with rascally new upstarts or actually producing something of some worth for society. Smart businessmen during Roosevelt’s time realized, though, that when the middle and lower classes were getting restless and increasingly receptive to calls for overturning the status quo, “the best way to thwart change was to channelize it.” And what better way to thwart demands for radical change than to channel them to the political system?

Have you followed the Senate lately?

Legislation that would genuinely help the public at large is non-existent, while even “reform” bills that upon reading appear to be anything but can’t seem to make it to the president’s desk. But uch troubles and concerns about arcane Senate rules were not apparent when Wall Street’s $700 billion slush fund was at stake, of course. Recent history in fact demonstrates yet again that when it comes to manipulating state power, the already wealthy enjoy one hell of an edge over those unable to afford high-paid lawyers and lobbyists. This is true now just as it was true during Teddy Roosevelt's time, when the former president observed that the “man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the state, because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government."

To most liberals and advocates of reform, the best way to address those "special advantages" the state affords the wealthy is -- and this should come as no surprise -- through more reform and regulation; more campaign finance laws, oversight boards and blue-ribbon commissions that experience has shown will undoubtedly be dominated by the same interests they are ostensibly investigating and regulating. The spectacular failure of reform efforts to arrest the trend toward ever-greater concentration of power and money in the hands of a few beckons us to contemplate a more holistic solution to the problem of the state and the influence of capital, but one that, as Thoreau would put it, can only be considered when the masses are prepared for it, when people come to grasp that they can get along just fine without the charlatans and hucksters who claim to represent them -- when violence and power come to be abhorred, not worshiped.

We have a ways to go.


*Sega video game designers knew what was up: the villain of the Sonic the Hedgehog games, Dr. Robotnik (pictured above), was purportedly based on America's 26th president.