Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tea Parties, Espresso Snobs, Freedom and Equality

I can't stand talk radio of any political persuasion, it's all too repetitive and emotional. But I like to keep tabs on the media landscape out there, and in terms of who's talking on the radio in much of the USA here are your choices, in order of prevalence: football, Jesus, Rush Limbaugh and, late at night when folks are apparently good and ready for it, shows about the government hiding the existence of aliens from outer space who are living in Nevada. If you find the “public” radio station and the classical music playing all day hasn't put you to sleep yet, for an hour or so in the evening you can listen to chirpy graduates of Ivy League schools with upper-class New England accents review the latest in French cinema or the newest innovations in poodle-grooming techniques. On TV it's even worse. Through this static there are a lot of people who are out of work and living in an overcrowded, dilapidated shack somewhere in Michigan or Texas who are desperately trying to make sense of the world around them.

The one redeeming thing about talk radio is that they actually allow people to call in now and then and the conversation isn't entirely one-way. It's clear who has the mike and who's steering things, but I'm always impressed at how often the disconnect comes up. That is, the caller is usually a good “ditto head” as long as we're lambasting hippies or the cultural elite or drug addicts or poor people attempting to take advantage of the remnants of our welfare system. But as soon as a caller says something negative about the corporations, corporate welfare, the corporations who took their business to Mexico and China and left unemployment and poverty in their wake, Rush quickly corrects their impression that the rich are in any way to blame for this situation – no, the unions are to blame for demanding a living wage, in case you didn't know.

For Rush, the pundits on Fox, and so on, it's all about freedom – freedom from the tyranny of the Democratic Party, who, according to their narrative, are intent on spending all of your tax money on helping people inside the US and around the world who are too lazy to help themselves, leaving you, the hard-working white American man, ignored and exploited. For Rush and company, above all, freedom is about freedom from government (when Democrats are involved) and the great importance of individual liberties – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to home school, the right to bear arms and be left alone. The Democrats want to make your children go to school and turn them into atheists, raise your taxes in order to waste more of your money, and take away your guns.

These are people who are often working two shit jobs to make ends meet whereas a generation ago one would have done just fine. They very legitimately feel disenfranchised and they're being told by the only voices on the airwaves that seem to resonate with an appropriate level of anger that their problems were caused by the Democrats and Democratic rule will make everything still worse. If you actually talk to these people, it often doesn't take long to realize that many of them feel almost as alienated by the Republicans as they do by the Democrats. You realize that if there were appropriately pissed off voices of the radical left broadcasting across the airwaves, reaching into the trucks on the highways and the trailers in the prairies, as long as these were the sorts of radical left voices that support individual liberty and aren't trying to take everybody's guns away, a good anti-corporate message would resonate perhaps more now than ever.

In fact, much of this stirring among the self-proclaimed “patriot” groups predates Obama. Many among this milieu were outraged by the bank bailout that happened under Bush's watch, just as most of the rest of society was. But it was only after the election of Obama that the Republican media mouthpieces (Fox, etc.) began blaming the new government for the imploding economy, as if the years of corrupt Republican rule never happened, as if the deregulation of the banking industry and the bank bailout was not supported by the Republicans as well as the Democrats.

Rush and Fox and company do their best to keep their listeners in a permanent state of confusion about where we've been, where we're at now and what the solution is – they do their best to make it look like the problem is anything but monopoly capitalism, rule of the rich, control of the government by the Fortune 500. But while many of their listeners may be skeptical about letting the corporate elite off the hook in terms of why so many hard-working, rugged individualists are in a state of deprivation despite their formidable efforts, it's not hard for them to agree with the pundits and “patriot” group leaders on one thing – that the Democratic Party is a hopelessly corrupt institution led by people who constantly say one thing and do another.

Now, most people, especially people who define themselves as progressive, would say exactly the same thing about the Republicans – and of course they'd be right. Both parties' leadership claim they're on the side of Main Street, not Wall Street – ordinary people, not the elite. The truth is quite evident to people who actually study the facts, rather than listening to the propagandists of either party: both of our ruling parties are thoroughly corrupted institutions serving the interests of the corporate elite, at the expense of the ordinary people of the US and ordinary people around the world.

The leadership of neither party questions our massive military expenditures. Both parties claim we're trying to bring democracy to other people, to better the lives of women and the oppressed in the Muslim world, when what the leadership of both parties know full well is that we're fighting wars for oil. For decades the Democrats, in and out of power but always part of the power structure, claim they stand for equality, for an egalitarian society. They always claim their social programs are going to house the poor, improve the schools, give people jobs – and, fundamentally, again and again, year after year, decade after decade, they lie. The schools continue to deteriorate, the jobs are harder to find and pay less, the opportunities for most people decrease, the society becomes increasingly divided, whether Democrats control the Congress and the White House or not.

The truth is in our country the rich and the big corporations are hardly taxed, while the working class and the small businesses bear the lion's share of the tax burden, and this is the program of both the RNC and the DNC. In our country neither party really supports social programs that could seriously lift our people up because both parties are too busy spending much of our money on nuclear bombs, corporate kickbacks and armies of private mercenaries. Both parties rule by a system of legalized bribery, called lobbying, that would land politicians in other ostensibly democratic countries in jail.

And if these angry listeners of Rush Limbaugh go looking for alternative versions of reality, let's hope they don't discover Mother Jones magazine, because they'll just be pushed right back into Rush's arms. In this month's issue we have a fearful expose of the Oath Keepers, and the editors lamenting that people like Rush “are actively negating a fundamental principle of American politics: that the government, no matter how much you might disagree with its representatives, is of, by, and for the people.” What a crock of shit. Mother Jones herself would be appalled at such drivel.

This is a government of, by, and for the corporate elite, which controls both parties. To regular people in the rest of the world this is fairly obvious. The “patriot” rank and file sense this but they've been actively misled by their supposed spokespeople for a long, long time, going way back before the invention of talk radio. But liberals whining that the “patriots” just need to play by the rules isn't helping at all. These people are angry for all kinds of good reasons – unemployment, poverty, and yes, most definitely taxation without representation – they are just confused about how things got this way, and this confusion is a state some very large corporations and their lackeys work very hard to maintain and benefit from.

I don't want to downplay the possibility of a serious fascist movement in this country. With forces like Rupert Murdoch and Dick Cheney at work, with a widespread perception that democracy has failed us, combined with growing hopelessness about the future prospects of “the American Dream,” the prospects for a real fascist movement are alarming. But let's not get into this stiff “us and them” dichotomy when it comes to the “patriot movement.” These are people with very legitimate complaints, and dismissing them as racists or whatever other label people on the left want to put on them is simplistic. They have certainly been fed a steady diet of pro-corporate and most definitely racist propaganda from the corporate media and from both major political parties for decades or longer. This doesn't excuse bigotry, but it certainly explains it.

Whether or not the “patriots” know it, neither corporate party is going to make things better for them, and under different circumstances, with accessible, local voices of real anti-elitist, anti-corporate, pro-human reason around them they might be a lot angrier and they might know what they're angry about. The grandparents of many of these disgruntled “patriots” were probably, in their youth in the 1930's throughout the midwest, taking back farms and homes by force which were foreclosed upon by banks, and joining massive unions of the unemployed. Rush is telling them the Democrats only care about “special interests,” which is entirely true (it's just that the special interests in question aren't the same ones Rush says they are). For their part, the Democrats are responding to the bubbling rage of this growing underclass with calls that they should just play by the rules, while steadfastly refusing to make the kinds of changes that could really make a difference – doubling taxes on the rich, outlawing corporate lobbying, ending corporate welfare, slashing the military budget, bringing the troops home, and hiring millions of new teachers and windmill-builders, for example. The “patriots” are outraged, whether or not they really understand why, and you should be, too – it's about as true now as it ever was, though many Democratic voters have removed their old bumper stickers: if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.

If the so-called progressives of this country can't snap out of their Obama-induced slumber, take to the streets and vocally break ranks with both corrupt parties that are driving this country into the ground – if the left can't offer a serious, grassroots, anti-elitist alternative to rightwing populism, but insists on maintaining the ridiculous illusion that we live in a democracy, then the future will indeed be bleak, and ugly, and filled with “patriots.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

How to Light a Prairie Fire

Here in the USA, millions of people are continuously losing their jobs and not finding new ones, millions more are losing their homes, still more millions are in prison for nothing more than self-medicating with drugs that arbitrarily happen to be illegal and will be discriminated against as felons for years to come. Tens of thousands are being shot to death every year, there are massacres happening somewhere in the country every other week or so, our Democrat-controlled government has just passed a health care “reform” that is being praised by the corporations who bought the government in the first place, we continue to spend as much on the military as the entire rest of the world combined, and our military is actively employed killing people in at least four different countries while threatening to expand that number. The oil industry is making good on their investments in the Congress and expanding off-shore drilling for the first time in twenty years, while the nuclear industry is getting a great bang for their Democratic buck and now has the chance to build new nuclear reactors for the first time in the US in three decades.

Those of us who have woken up from our Obama-induced trance state or never got hypnotized in the first place (because we're too busy being bombed by drones, for example) are feeling frustrated. Some of us, certainly, are venting that frustration in various constructive ways, but by and large that old “silent majority” is being pretty silent. As I travel around the country doing concerts people earnestly, often a bit desperately, wonder aloud to me, what's it going to take to get people really riled up and ready to do something about this situation? How much greater must the divide between the rich and poor grow? How many more ecological disasters? How much more climate change? How many more dead Muslims? Etc. People start feeling bad about their fellow Americans – are they just sheep after all?

Backing up a moment, the fact that people are asking the question “where are my fellow outraged citizens” tells me that one important thing is already understood, at least by most people who come to my shows – that mass movements of outraged citizens (and other people) is what's needed in order for real change to have a chance to occur. So then the question is, what are the conditions that need to exist for this movement to coalesce? If the situation is so bad for so many why is so little happening in reaction?

This is, of course, one of those perennial questions that everyone who yearns for a sane society is trying to answer. If there were a clear recipe, if it were like baking a loaf of bread or something that would be nice, but it's somewhat more complicated. If there's one thing I think many people need to understand – and there are probably many things, but if there's one thing that seems most relevant in what I get out of these conversations I'm having with people all over the place, it is this: sustained mass movements rarely happen unless many of the participants believe they might win.

It seems especially worth noting given that in hindsight everything is a bit less volatile – what's happened has happened. When you're there, making history, everything is much less predictable. The rebels in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 knew they were merely choosing the time and place of their deaths, and they referred to each other as “the walking dead.” They are the exception, however, not the rule – most rebellions take place in an atmosphere not just of need but of hope. The tens of thousands who went to Spain in the 1930's were not just planning to become martyrs. They were risking their lives, yes, but they thought that if enough of them joined in, and perhaps if France or Britain helped out a little (they didn't), they could defeat fascism in Spain. As for the thousands of brigadistaswho came from Germany and Italy, why did they not launch a rebellion against fascism in Germany or Italy in 1936 rather than going to Spain to fight German and Italian troops there? Because they thought in Spain they might win, and they had already lost the fight in their home countries for the time being, most of their comrades by then already dead or in prison camps.

You can't organize workers to go out on strike if they think they'll inevitably lose their jobs and get blacklisted – people are generally willing to strike if they think there's at least a decent chance that some of their grievances will be redressed. During the first two decades of the twentieth century there were millions of people involved with a militant labor movement that was ultimately crushed with the Palmer Raids and other events following World War I. During the 1930's another massive wave of labor organizing, this time resulting in lasting reforms to the capitalist system. Why no huge strike wave in the 1920's? Were conditions so good for workers then? No, there were other factors at play – among them the sense that victory was (or wasn't) possible.

The many thousands of people who were participating in the movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were not planning on being massacred, they were planning on bringing lasting change in China. The millions who poured into the streets of Caracas after the coup against Chavez in Venezuela in 2002 were not planning on being massacred, either. They were planning on bringing about the return of their president this way – and they were successful. A year later millions of people pouring into the streets of every city and many small towns in the US and around the world hoped through these demonstrations they could affect Bush's foreign policy. If they had known for sure before the fact how little impact this would have on the US government most of them would probably have stayed at home.

Of course there are innumerable other factors involved with movement-building – especially successful movement-building -- aside from the existence of conditions people want to change and people having a feeling of optimism about changing those conditions. I'll outline my take on some of those factors, for what it's worth.

It seems to me the first thing people need is a sense of who is out there. A heck of a lot of people in this country live in suburbs where they don't know their neighbors and their main contact with the world is what they see on TV, what they see out the window of their cars, and what they experience at either of their two jobs. These people and people around the country need to know that most of their fellow citizens are also unhappy with the status quo – according to mainstream poll after poll it is clear that most people think things like health care, housing and education should be government priorities rather than oil drilling and empire-building. Most people think action should be taken urgently to deal with climate change.

First and foremost it is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people. The ruling elite knows it, that's why they've bought up most of the airwaves and won't even let Al-Jazeera on cable here. Successful social movements have met this challenge in the past by creating their own media, running their own educational institutions, summer camps, theaters, etc. At the heart of successful social movements is a vibrant culture of resistance, complete with a more sensible historical narrative, a vision of a better society, and lots and lots of songs. There is a clear sense of a larger community of like-minded people and a sense of being part of a long and often successful history of social movements that have come before us.

The movements that tend to succeed are also broad-based, inclusive, and more or less democratically organized. There are commonly-held ideas about tactics and strategies. Tactics tend to be militant and may often be illegal, but are designed to build your support rather than to alienate your supporters.

Naturally, the ruling elite, their lackeys in Congress and the White House, bought and sold by the Fortune 500, will try to convince us that raising money for political campaigns and then voting in rigged elections is the way forward. (Either that or smashing the windows of your local Starbucks.) They won't tell you that democracy doesn't happen that way. Naturally, the ruling elite will have their own, much better-funded and far more ubiquitous institutions of learning, their media, their outlets of propaganda in Hollywood or Nashville.

But when people ask me whether I am hopeful in these dark times, my answer, unequivocally, is yes. Perhaps partially because I take a long view of history. But also because I am privy to a secret that is known well to the powers-that-be: for all the wealth and power of the corporate clique who are ruining the world for their private gain, they still require the consent of the governed. They will throw us crumbs while they rip us off and they will try to give us a false sense of security as we race headlong towards the proverbial wall. But, to use a dangerous word, there are basic truths on our side, and as someone said, ten minutes of truth can counteract 24 hours of lies.

We live in a corporate-run empire, not a democratic republic, and there is a mysterious thing that can happen when enough people who are being adversely affected by this fact understand it and realize that they're not alone. I was interviewing veteran organizer Leslie Cagan for my internet radio show the other day, asking her about the police infiltrators constantly trying to create divisions within activist groups. “They're just people,” she said. And just like us, they can make mistakes, and regularly do.

What I'm trying to say is, sure, always question tactics, strategies and visions. But whatever you do, ye fellow members of the choir, know your history and don't give up. Know that as you're apparently spinning your wheels, doing whatever things you do to try to organize, educate, agitate or otherwise work to build the infrastructure of a future democratic society, the darkest hour is often just before the dawn. At any moment, apparently quite suddenly, the spell can be broken, and things can shift. That another such moment is coming is certain. What we and our neighbors will do with it is the question.