Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bush Rules (Still)

Bernie Madoff got a hundred and fifty year sentence, but if you go by the standard of the amount of harm done – or even by the number of people swindled – there are far worse criminals out there still. George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld are among the most conspicuous. They deserve a hundred times a hundred and fifty years in prison. But they are protected by the Forgiver in Chief, by He Who (liberals still think) Can Do No Wrong. Therefore, instead of making license plates, they are raking in millions in book advances and speakers’ fees. This in the name of “restoring the rule of law” – and, oh yes, “looking forward,” being “bipartisan” and the like!

Barack Obama has truly extraordinary political gifts. He can make anybody think he’s on their side even when, especially when, he’s not especially. Witness his meeting yesterday with representatives of the LGBT community, the constituency he’s so far betrayed the most -- or rather second most, since we must not forget (as Obama has) organized labor. It’s not just Orwellian; it’s downright uncanny. Or, back in the rule of law department, witness his efforts to “close Guantanamo” by keeping scores of inmates in indefinite preventive detention. Amnesty International is on to him, but most liberals still are not.

Obama’s unconstrained “pragmatism” is replete with unintended ironies. Thus today, as the anti-war candidate pulls U.S. troops out of Iraqi cities – sort of, they’re just moving to bases in the burbs – the Iraqi government, while celebrating its “independence,” is putting oil contracts out for bid. It’s the first time since Iraq nationalized its oil fields some forty years ago. Mission accomplished!

Friday, June 26, 2009

It's the Liberals, Stupid

Although the shapers of public opinion do their best to make folks oblivious to the obvious, everybody knows that our political class is bought and paid for. How much better our public life would be if, as was suggested on “Car Talk,” our legislators dressed like NASCAR drivers. Then everyone would know who their corporate sponsors are. How much better still if, like in a real democracy, we had real public financing of electoral campaigns – to a degree that would eliminate incentives to stuff Congressional pockets!

It is also becoming clear, even to the willfully blind that Barack Obama’s “bipartisan” governing style, his Pelosiism, is woefully inadequate to the tasks of governance. Even Paul Krugman now outright says so.

But it’s not just the system or the scourge of “bipartisanship” that is to blame; it’s also the liberals. Yet again, they are busy doing what liberals famously do – not taking their own side in an argument. This is what leads far too many on “the left” of the mainstream to acquiesce to “bipartisan” compromises – on climate change, health care, economic recovery or whatever. There’s a formula for it: start from what Obama proposes, then compromise down. It’s unadulterated Clintonism, and it stinks.

The deeper problem, though, is that liberals are too, well, liberal. This is especially evident in constituencies Democrats take for granted. Nothing, short of real public finance, would be better medicine for our body politic than a revitalized labor movement. Yet organized labor is willing to trust the Supreme Leader as he voices support for the Employee Free Choice Act, on the rare occasions lately that he says anything it at all, and then don’t mind that it’s all talk. Worse still, it never occurs to the labor chieftains to propose anything even mildly more radical – for example, doing away with the shackles of the Taft-Hartley laws.

The gays are worst of all. True, they’ve finally shown some irritation with Obama’s retreat from his campaign promises. That forced the Great Triangulator to throw a few crumbs their way – specifically, to provide partial benefits for same-sex partners of some federal employees. I would bemoan this shabby treatment more if I could muster any enthusiasm for the “equality” they seek.

Abolish Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Fine, but how about adding on an anti-imperialist or even just an anti-militarist afterthought! Evidently, these liberals cannot envision an equality more profound than the guarantee of equal opportunities to maim and murder for imperialism’s sake.

Then there’s gay marriage. Sure, it is unjust to treat people differently because of their sexual orientation. But who among gay marriage advocates dares point out that marriage “as we know it,” gay and straight, is the most egregious infringement of church-state separation in our political system! If people want to marry for expressive or, God forbid, religious reasons – let them. But in a secular society, the state’s policy should be strictly hands off. Every legitimate public interest can be adequately addressed by a sufficiently robust conception of “civil union.” Let that be what states provide – for everyone equally. Civil unions for all who want them, period! Anything else, including the right to describe intimate relations in terms associated with traditional marriage, should be relegated to the private sphere.

Do our liberals know better? I think, like Obama, they do – most of them, anyway. But until their practice – and the ideas behind it – become truer to what they know, then, like Obama, they will remain part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What's In a Name?

Barack Obama is truly blessed.

The “useful idiots” Ronald Reagan and his ruling class masters drew into the GOP have taken over the party’s public face completely– and they are dragging the party down beyond anyone’s expectations. Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina governor Mark Sanford are the latest, most spectacular examples of God-fearing, gay baiting, family values and, especially in Sanford’s case, free-marketeering imbeciles self-destructing. That liberal pundits depict Sanford’s travails as tragic, rather than deliciously bathetic, only goes to show how mindless liberal pundits are.

As Obama gears up to be the first American President since Eisenhower to try, albeit gingerly, to exert pressure on our utterly dependent client state, Israel, the viciously right-wing Netanyahu government, outflanked by parties to its right and to the right of their right are busily involved in enacting transparently racist laws. They want to disenfranchise Israeli Arabs by requiring their political representatives to swear oaths to support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; and they want to imperil, and perhaps someday even deport, Israeli leftists by imposing prison terms on anyone who dares say or write otherwise. [Thus their policies are not only racist but also patently self-contradictory.] Were this turn in Israeli politics more widely known, it would relieve some of the Israel-right-or-wrong pressure that deforms our political culture. That it is not more widely known only goes to show how morally bankrupt liberal pundits, and the media they work for, are.

As Obama prepares to engage Iran diplomatically, his critics to the Right – John “Bomb Bomb Iran” McCain especially, along with his sidekick Lindsey Graham – have been busy making fools of themselves and showing how little they’ve learned from the debacle the neo-conservative Bush foreign policy establishment has visited upon the world, by insisting that Obama do more to make American “support for democracy and freedom” the issue in Iran. Obama was blessed during the campaign to be running against fools such as these, and now they’re back in full swing. It’s not just that they’re obviously wrong; they’re also playing a self-defeating game. By calling on Obama to be more outspoken in support of opponents of the Ahmadinejad government, the neo-neo-cons of the Republican Party have made it harder for themselves (and their Israeli colleagues) to get their way. Do they really think that public opinion will support “bomb bomb bomb(ing)” people they depict as heroes?

The list goes on. Polls reveal enormous public support for freeing the health care system from the scourge of health care profiteers – private insurance companies especially; for sticking it to Wall Street predators rather than sticking everything back in their bloated pockets; for doing away with Clinton and Bush era homophobic laws; for coming out strongly against right-wing, homegrown terrorists and supporting women’s reproductive rights; and so on. But what does Obama do about it? The short answer is: very little.

With each passing day, Obama waxes more and more Pelosiite. [As I have explained in counteless entries, going back to the beginning of this blog, Pelosiism is later day Clintonism. Like classical Clintonites, Pelosiites overestimate the power of the Right and then triangulate with a view to placing themselves, as best they can, in the center of the center. If this means betraying their most ardent supporters, so be it; they can always be taken for granted. If it means displaying abject spinelessness, they not only don’t care; they’re oblivious. If it means acquiescing in crimes of historical dimensions, then that’s OK too. Pelosiism is opportunism for opportunism’s sake.] The difference from the Clinton era is that now the opportunities for “real change” are so much greater and the stakes so much higher. This is why there is even more reason to reproach Pelosiites than the Clintonites of yesteryear; and why it is rapidly becoming the case that Obama is even worse than Bill Clinton. But none of this has yet dawned on most of the already betrayed Obamamaniacs still out there. Along with the “boost don’t knock crowd” in Washington’s “liberal” “think” tanks, they remain all too willing to give their Supreme Leader the benefit of every doubt.

The gods have truly blessed Barack Obama by handing him a consummately pathetic GOP, unworthy of its semi-established status. But, along with his co-thinkers in the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity (or, what comes to the same thing, the Party of Pelosiites), he has so far seen fit to squander his blessings with reckless, “bipartisan,” “pragmatic,” “centrist” abandon.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Who Benefits?

Once Iran’s Supreme Theocrat (“Leader”), Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threw his support behind the current President, Mahmoud Ahmadinijad, the “winner” of Iran’s fraudulent presidential election [of course, he may also have won “fair and square”; this no one now knows], the full weight of the theocracy fell in behind Ahmadinijad. Thereafter, to oppose him is “objectively” to oppose the theocracy itself, even if all many of the demonstrators really care about is electoral fraud. For the most part, those demonstrators support another theocrat, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The consensus view in the Western media is that a Mousavi victory is preferable to a Ahmadinjad victory; this also seems to be the view of most well-educated Iranians, women and young people especially. Perhaps they are right; perhaps a Mousavi government would be slightly more liberal than the Ahmadinijad government has been. But this was and is an intra-theocratic struggle, waged within the regime not in (revolutionary) opposition to it. In the final analysis, the leaders of the contending sides don’t differ all that much – even in comparison with (pre-Bush) Republicans and Democrats.

It looks increasingly like Ahmadinijad will prevail. The state’s repressive apparatus seems to have remained loyal to the theocracy; according to news reports this morning, it is cracking down brutally on Mousavi supporters. More importantly, Mousavi and those close to him have remained loyal too – to the regime, if not to the current incumbents of its highest offices. The masses in the streets may have been on the brink of becoming revolutionary, and the spirit of revolution could soon revive. But it would be a revolution without a clear direction; and without a cohesive and genuinely oppositional leadership to take control of the state. Lacking these things, the popular demonstrations would probably have petered out in due course. Now it seems that the theocracy will repress them into oblivion. The dynamic for “real change” (the real thing, not the debased version we in the United States know too well) was there; but the obstacles in its way were daunting and, worse still, there was no clear path forward.

Who benefits from this unfortunate turn of events? In the short run, certainly not the Iranian people; they can now expect a new wave of repression. Not Iranian elites either, since their legitimacy, both at home and abroad, will be in deep crisis for an indefinite future. But at least they will have escaped with their pious hides. The real beneficiaries are the West, especially the United States, and Israel. The Right within the West and Israel benefit most of all.

This is not just because a weakened Iran is good news for them, especially after the Bush-Cheney – now Obama! – wars in Iraq and Afghanistan massively – though, of course, unintentionally -- strengthened Iran’s hand throughout the region. It is more because the more easily demonizable Iran’s leadership is, the more the West and Israel can use the specter of Iran to gain support for their continuing ill-conceived machinations throughout the Middle East and central Asia. No one in the world today is more demonizable than Mahmoud Ahmadinijad – not even Kim Jong-Il comes close.

We can see already how Republicans and “moderate” Democrats (including almost certainly Joe Biden and very likely Hillary Clinton) are waxing “Wilsonian” again – urging Obama to intervene more forcefully or at least more conspicuously in a situation they thoroughly misunderstand. Given how “bipartisan” and prone to compromise Obama can be, they may succeed in derailing the (somewhat) wiser course Obama seemed to be forging. Israel benefits too, especially the Israeli Right. With Ahmadinjad more than Mousavi, their “existential threat” remains intact. They need that threat desperately, along with what they can label “anti-Semitism” wherever they can find it or conjure it up, to keep their own quasi-theocratic ethnic project from exhausting what little moral capital it can still call upon. Shameless exploitation of the Nazis’ industrialized genocidal campaign against European Jewry only goes so far.

Expect the theocrats in Iran to blame the West for the unrest. According to news reports, this is already happening. It is worth remarking, though, that, this time around, the theocracy’s ire seems directed more at Great Britain than the United States. Perhaps Obama’s vaunted “opening” to “the Islamic world” is bearing fruit. But, of course, this could change in an instant if the Republicans and their co-thinkers in the Lesser Evil Party get their way.

Blaming “the West” and Israel serves the theocracy’s purpose, and the West and Israel have long provided the theocrats with ample ammunition. But the larger fact is that the Iranian theocracy serves the West’s and Israel’s purposes too. It’s a vicious circle, which, in light of recent events, is not about to wither away.

Friday, June 19, 2009

We Ain't Seen Nuthin' Yet

This piece by David Swanson amplifies the point I made in an earlier entry on the perfidy of all but a tiny fraction of Congressional Democrats in voting last week for “emergency” funding for the Bush – now the Obama – wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Democratic perfidy is about to get even worse. The news in recent days has been full of indications that POP (Party of Pusillanimity) “moderates” -- with Max Baucus, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, in the lead -- will ditch “the public option” in Obama’s saccharine health care “reform” proposal altogether. Just a few days ago, it looked like the worst they would do is water it down – enough to obliterate the obvious advantages of public over private provision.

Joe Kennedy is reputed to have said “show me a Republican, and I’ll show you a son of a bitch.” Times change. Now he would have to add “imbecile” to the description. Even so, Democrats are doing their best to make it the case that Republicans hang onto their Greater Evil status by a hair. “Show me a Democrat,” a later day bootlegging, skirt chasing plutocrat and pater familias might say, “…and, with only a handful of exceptions proving the rule, I’ll show you a liar and a hypocrite and a son of a bitch.” And since times change, we should also add “bitch” tout court – “with all due respect” for Nancy Pelosi and her ilk.

Regime Change in Iran?

Will street protests topple the Iranian theocracy? Probably not, according to most informed observers. It is even unlikely that the clerical authorities will reverse the results of the fixed election that started the protests going. The reason why even that much democracy is unlikely is the same as why genuine regime change is – because there is no political force in Iran today capable of leading it. The contestants for power in the last election were all, by design, theocrats themselves; none of them – Mir-Hossein Mousavi, least of all –have any quarrel with the regime in place. And there are no other political forces or charismatic leaders outside the electoral arena for the Iranian masses to rally around. The ruling clerisy is apparently divided, even at its highest levels, but it remains united in wanting to maintain its power. Thus the prospects for change are bleak.

There is hope, however – just not very much. Even in a theocracy, the people, once mobilized and energized, can change conditions fundamentally. In this instance, it seems that they are mobilized only by disgust with the status quo; not with a positive vision of a radically better alternative. That too impedes regime change. But, alas, in Iran as wherever else Abrahamic religions flourish, acquiescence is among the wages of “faith.” The Divinity has a way of seeing to it that the center holds. But illusions are not invincible. So long as the people, the demos, remain politically active, nothing is entirely out of the question.

This is why the political struggle we are witnessing in Iran is an inspiration; notwithstanding the sorry fact that it is, for the time being and, very likely, for the foreseeable future, a struggle among reactionary theocrats. Too bad that, in this respect, Americans are so un-Iranian! We surely have as much reason for disgust as the people now on the streets in Iran. But eight years of the Cheney/Bush torture regime couldn’t even produce a militant anti-war movement. Now, with Obamamania still flourishing despite all the betrayals of “change we can believe in,” the people are even farther from power – not just from seizing it, which is out of the question in the Home of the Brave, but even from affecting its operation significantly.

Until a few days ago, the punditocracy in this country was confident that the demonstrations in Iran would either wither away after a few days or be crushed – Tienanmin style. They expected a replay of the crackdown on the massive student demonstrations of 1999. But, unlike ten years ago, what is happening now seems to involve all sectors of the population, not just students; and it seems to be going on in many, if not all, parts of the country, not just in Tehran and other large cities. It is therefore not clear that a Tienanmin reaction is even possible.

But this doesn’t mean that the people are bound to win. Iran’s theocrats are wily – like the best bourgeois politicians. They seem to have assimilated the lesson of Charles DeGaulle in 1968. DeGaulle was the consummate counter-revolutionary strategist. He realized that to win, he had to remain aloof, doing as little as possible to encourage the popular movement, while insuring behind the scenes that the military and the rest of the state’s repressive apparatus would remain loyal to the regime. Then, without a political leadership willing and able to transform the regime fundamentally, popular unrest would eventually subside to a degree that “the forces of order” would be able safely to reestablish control. DeGaulle’s strategy worked -- thanks mainly to the debility of the French Communist Party and the impotence of the far Left. The Iranian people today don’t have even that much going for them; how could they after living for thirty years in the grip of retrograde clerics!

Nevertheless, what is happening now is bound to change the political atmosphere in Iran and the world, especially if Ahmadinejad’s electoral “victory” stands. Thanks to the past week’s events, and to events to follow, the Iranian government will have had the wind taken out of its sails. That’s good news for Obama, who has so far played his cards wisely. At least in this matter, he has resisted the temptation to go “bipartisan” – by compromising with bellicose neocons and other self-styled “Wilsonians.” It’s also bad news for Netanyahu and the Israeli Right (and “center” and “moderate” “left”). No doubt, in Jerusalem’s darkest recesses, they are fretting mightily over the prospect of losing an “existential threat.” Should it come to that, expect them to conjure up what they will call “anti-Semitism” wherever and whenever they can. If they’re to keep on going as they are, they can’t do without it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Who the Good Guys Are

Yesterday, June 16, another “day which will live in infamy,” the House of Representatives passed a $106 billion emergency funding bill for the Obama wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It will keep the murder and mayhem going through September. The final vote was 226-202. But for the efforts of Tim Geithner and Nancy Pelosi, the vote would have been a lot closer; they pressured dozens of self-described anti-war Democrats to win one for Barack Obama. In the end, 221 members of the Lesser Evil Party – even that can no longer be said without irony! -- voted to keep the imperialist wars Bush and Cheney started going.

The 32 good guys were joined by all but five of their colleagues from what is still, all things considerd, the Greater Evil party. The Republicans have no quarrel with murder and mayhem and no beef with imperialism. They voted No because the Obama administration inserted language into the imperialist war funding bill that would bail out (mainly foreign) banks – by loading taxpayer money into the International Monetary Fund. That was also worth opposing. I suggested yesterday that many of them also had less savory motivations. They are Republicans, after all.

Anyway, here is a list of the good guys, Democrats who resisted Obama and Pelosi and the rest of the Pusillanimous Party’s leadership – in order to do the right thing. Congressional Democrats not listed below are, at best, cowards or deluded Obamamaniacs. Of course, most Democrats don’t rise even to that level.

THE GOOD GUYS: Baldwin; Capuano; Conyers; Doggett; Edwards (MD); Ellison; Farr; Filner; Grayson; Grijalva; Honda; Kaptur; Kucinich; Lee (CA); Lofgren, Zoe; Massa; McGovern; Michaud; Payne; Pingree (ME); Polis (CO); Serrano; Shea-Porter; Sherman; Speier; Stark; Tierney; Tsongas; Waters; Watson; Welch; Woolsey

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why Does Obama Placate the Right and Take the Left for Granted?

Why does Obama placate the Right so zealously? One thing is sure. It’s not because their ideas have merit. That’s the one thing that unites “moderate” and “conservative” Democrats, and all Republicans. In a sane world, no one would bother with what they have to say. But in our world, the two party system is quasi-institutionalized. Therefore, the Republican Party cannot be ignored; it is an unavoidable pole of attraction. Morally and intellectually bankrupt as it may be – and how else describe a party that gets marching orders from Rush Limbaugh or that contemplates putting Sarah Palin in the White House! – Republicans drag the political process rightward. Then there’s the sorry fact that Obama chose to govern through Clintonite apparatchki – in other words, through right-leaning opportunists. Rahm Emanuel is among the worst of them, but they are all bad news. Clintonites are disposed by nature to pander to the powers that be. Then, of course, there are the well-funded “special interests” Obama feels obliged to flatter, even when he does not altogether obey their demands. His speech yesterday in Chicago before the American Medical Association is the latest example. [It should be noted that the AMA has, for decades, menaced public health by supporting healthcare profiteers egregiously. It is and always has been part of the problem, not part of the solution.]

Those are reasons why Obama placates the Right. But why does he hardly bother even to address the concerns of those who favor positions to the left of his own? The short answer is: because he can. There are plenty of self-identified “progressives” in the House of Representatives and a few in the Senate as well. But, as I have been arguing in countless postings, they are singularly unwilling to leverage their power, much less to wield it effectively. The contrast with the Right is striking. If “conservatives” know anything, it’s that whoever is the most obstreperous will usually get his (or sometimes her) way, no matter how stupid the cause. Liberal Democrats should learn this lesson. In a world where nice guys finish last, they’re not nearly mean enough.

And even in those rare instances where they do rise to the occasion, the Pelosiite leadership in Congress is there to quash their efforts. Pelosi and Company are at it this very moment: working to assure that progressive Democrats -- along with Republicans opposed to Obama’s plan to sink more taxpayer money into the International Monetary Fund -- won’t succeed in defunding the Bush, now the Obama, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

[This is one area, by the way, where, for the wrong reasons (xenophobic animosities and ill-conceived fiscal worries), Republicans may actually be doing the right thing. What they’re opposing is, in effect, a bail out for foreign banks (and bankers). It shows, yet again, how even a stopped clock is right twice a day!]

These are reasons why progressive legislators must be compelled by their constituents to act effectively; why otherwise they will remain feckless. Only “we, the people” can get them on track. But with Obamamania still rife, where will we find the will, much less the means? That is, as they used to say, the $64 (later the $64,000) question. Until we figure out the answer, we’ll continue to be mired in a situation where the majority of Americans support positions to the left of Obama’s, but where legislators who represent their views can be and usually are ignored with impunity.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Obama = Hoover

Will we ever get an official accounting of the crimes (war crimes, crimes against the peace, crimes against humanity) committed by, among others, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush? Will they be brought to justice? It is becoming increasingly difficult, even for the willfully blind, not to realize -- not if Barack Obama can help it.

Will our immoral and strategically disastrous wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars lost long ago that now serve mainly to keep the imperialist project free of the taint of abject defeat, even at the cost of producing new generations of terrorists, be brought to an end? Many of the folks who voted for him thought Obama good for that. But by now, who can deny that while he may deescalate one of them without quite ending the murder and mayhem, he’s hell bent on escalating the other.

No sane person last November thought that American capitalism was about to be replaced by anything better; but, in the face of a crisis approaching Depression level proportions, there were many who thought Obama would at least force a more human face on the capitalist system; that he’d force capitalists to “serve the people” better. That’s what happened in the Roosevelt era. But who now thinks that Obama – or, rather, the old Wall Street hands he selected to deal with the situation – have it in them to do anything of the kind?

Will the ecological catastrophe towards which the world is heading be diverted? The expectations of Obama voters notwithstanding, hardly anyone still expects more than token gestures from the Obama administration.

Will Obama help us get the healthcare system we need? No way. Single-payer is “off the table.”

Will Obama address the issue of nuclear proliferation satisfactorily? Will he force Israeli leaders to accept a two state solution in Israel/Palestine? Will he end the blockade of Cuba? Will we get genuine transparency in government under Obama? Will CIA and special forces “dark ops” be quashed? Will he even close Gitmo, without resurrecting it somewhere else, probably somewhere extra-territorial? It’s now clear that Obama won’t even lift a finger to help the citizens ofWashington D.C. gain representation along with taxation? The list goes on. George Bush’s successor is officially on the right side, more or less, on many issues. Nevertheless, these questions answer themselves.

Blame Congress with its bought and paid for imbeciles on one side and its bought and paid for cowards on the other. [There are also, of course, a handful of powerless exceptions, holding forth meekly for doing the right thing.] Blame the corporations. Their oceans of money, stuffed into the pockets of a servile political class, constrain what political scientists would call “the opportunity set” Congress and the White House confront. Blame the schools, blame the media – both do a good job of dumbing down political discourse and keeping citizens ignorant and acquiescent.

But, conceding all that, it is becoming increasingly plain that in this (potential) watershed period Obama is culpable too. I never expected much from him. [I am proud to say that I didn’t even vote for him! As I habitually do, I voted for Ralph Nader in protest.] But, even before taking office, as he reassembled the Clintonite minions – indeed, even before he became the official Democratic nominee, when he selected Joe Biden to be his Vice President – Obama has been a manifest disappointment to progressive Obamaniacs and to Obama-skeptics alike. In office now for several months, it just keeps getting worse. Soon, reality will have intruded enough so that the honeymoon between our rulers’ CEO and what passes for a Left in this country will be over; one can see it happening already in the so-called progressive media. Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters and fans are beginning to jump ship.

As happens when illusions pass, everybody pretty much complains about the same things, pretty much in tandem. But, occasionally, there are fresh insights. Harper’s magazine is often a good place to look for them. The current issue (July, 2009; unfortunately not available on line except to subscribers) does not disappoint.

In an article entitled “Barack Hoover Obama: the best and the brightest blow it again,” Kevin Baker draws parallels between Obama’s governing style and the style of our last genuinely intelligent, knowledgeable and worldly President, Herbert Hoover. Baker’s contention, in short, is that both Presidents know (or knew) better than their actions suggest, and that they are both self-made prisoners of the ambient political culture. If Baker is right, Obama, like Hoover, is a tragic character – obliged by necessity (or rather by his understanding of what necessity requires) to cede power to advisors in the thrall of a conventional wisdom that is manifestly inadequate for the tasks at hand, even as he envisions better, more radical, alternatives. As everyone knows, Hoover’s unwillingness to take bold measures made the Great Depression disastrously worse, setting his party back for generations. Baker warns that it is looking increasingly like this will be Obama’s fate as well.

Obama’s style and wit suggest JFK, but what he promises, in fact, is less Camelot than Vietnam (in the form of an endless quagmire in Afghanistan). Obama’s political acuity and guile recalls FDR’s. But Obama has boxed himself in too much to experiment with anything like a New Deal. That’s why we are not living through the Second Coming of Camelot or the Roosevelt years. Quite the contrary. Obama is, or is likely to become, the Herbert Hoover of our time.

According to the dominant historical narrative, Hoover was a non-entity with implacable conservative instincts, in way over his head. He might have been able to muddle along well enough in better times. But thanks to the stock market crash of 1929 and the bank failures that followed, he had mediocrity or worse thrust upon him. Baker’s article corrects that misapprehension. On his account, Herbert Hoover was capable of greatness – he had both the intellect and the opportunity – but he made himself a slave of the norms of the political culture of his time. That, Baker claims, is what brought his administration down in failure. Now history is repeating itself; Obama is making similar mistakes. Baker’s article is an eye-opener. Would that Obama would read it and that it would open his eyes too while there is still time to change course. There isn’t much time left. As in the Dylan song, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

* *

The same edition of Harper’s also contains a fine piece by Ken Silverstein on the massive effort to quash the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) waged by the leaders of what the media euphemistically call “the business community.” Nothing could more effectively improve public life in this country – and raise the level of public discourse – than a reempowered labor movement. Obama knows this. Seeking labor votes, he endorsed EFCA during his run for office, and he continues to voice support. But will he spend his still considerable political capital to make EFCA happen? It doesn’t seem likely, not with so much else on his plate. While saving health care for the health care profiteers, keeping the Bush (now Obama) wars going, retaining the power and riches of Wall Street predators, and letting the environment go to hell, where will he find the time?

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Great "Debate"

As the healthcare “debate” unfolds this summer, we’ll have a test of just how stifling corporate control over the legislative process is. Everyone, including relevant elites, knows that the present system is unsustainable – never mind, unjust and inefficient – and must be reformed. And no one who is not a beneficiary of the status quo cares much for health care profiteers, private insurance corporations especially. Thus reform is in the air.

At the same time, many Democrats and all Republicans have seen to it that the obvious solution, single-payer health insurance, is “off the table.” Nevertheless, there is an effort, at least for now, spearheaded by Ted Kennedy and other liberals and supported by President Obama to come up with a pale approximation of the solution – by instituting public alongside private health insurance. Should something like that finally become law, there are two possibilities: either the public plan will not impinge, except superficially, on the interests of healthcare profiteers; or it will. If it does not, then we’ll know that, at least in this domain, corporate control swamps common sense, public opinion, and even enlightened self-interest. But if we do get a public plan worth having, then, as I argued recently, it will be evidence for a different hypothesis: that the main reason why liberal Democrats have taken single-payer off the table is some combination of cowardice and incompetent, murky thinking, not campaign contributions or promises of future riches. We’ll know soon enough.

But the great “debate” now underway is not about that, at least not according to the liberal media (for example, NPR this morning). It’s about whether the government should be in the insurance business. I suppose a principled libertarian could produce a coherent, though flawed, argument on the No side, but that’s not what we’re hearing. Instead, “moderate” and right-wing Democrats, marching in tandem with the Greater Evil Party, seem oblivious to incoherencies, as if their intent is just to lower the level of public discourse (not that it isn’t already low enough!). That they could get away with such blatantly mindless drivel speaks to the failure of American schools (and colleges and universities) and media to educate the public up to the point where they can meaningfully participate as citizens. To cite just one much in the news and especially egregious example: listen to anything Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley says – and weep.

It’s not rocket science; it’s not even basic civics. Either health care is a right (like education or legal representation for persons charged with crimes or any of a variety of other “services” even “bipartisans” and “moderates” support) or it’s a commodity (like Plymouths or Pontiacs). Again, a principled libertarian might opt for commodification. But that’s not what most naysayers think. If pushed or even just forced to think about it, most of them. I am confident, would agree that health care ought to be a right. But if health care is a right, then obviously there’s no principled reason to keep the government out. The only plausible grounds there could be is that governments are somehow inefficient. But then the naysayers are in plain defiance of overwhelming evidence to the contrary: from a patient’s point of view, Medicare, for example, is remarkably efficient; private health insurers are not. QED.

But, of course, the “debate” NPR reports on is oblivious to the obvious. The point of it is not to address genuine concerns, but to help Republicans and “moderate” Democrats pull off what their corporate masters are paying for them to do. That’s why, no matter what it looks like, defenders of positions even worse than Obama’s are not dumbing down for dumbing down’s sake or even, in many cases, because they don’t know better. They’re dumbing down public discourse the better to shift our impending national “conversation” onto a course that will ease the way for a “solution” healthcare profiteers can welcome.

Given public opinion nowadays, liberal Democrats, properly mobilized, could almost certainly defeat the insurance, drug and for-profit healthcare industries – and their legislative flunkies -- handily. But that would take standing up to powerful economic interests; and that, in turn, would require liberal Democrats to have backbones – an anatomical feature they conspicuously lack. But maybe, just maybe, this time around, enough of them will be able to find just enough courage not to set the cause back, Clinton-style, for another generation. If Obama can see past the folly of bipartisanship, even if only long enough to get reform through, there is a chance. Then, to be sure, we won’t have a very good solution for what ails us -- that’s “off the table” -- but at least we won’t have to deal with anything too plainly awful. And we’ll know that not all Democrats are bought and paid for all the time; that if they seem to be, it’s only because they’re muddled and, by nature, cowardly instead.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Single Payer/Public Plan

Healthcare reform can be complicated when it comes to writing legislation acceptable to all the bought and paid for representatives of the various special (as opposed to popular) interest groups -- the insurance companies, the drug companies, the for-profit health care providers and so on. But the solution to the many problems our health care system faces is simple: make health care a right, not a commodity; get for-profit insurance companies out of the health insurance business altogether, replacing them with a public agency (as in Medicare or the Veterans Administration); and have the One Big Insurer negotiate costs with the pharmaceutical industry and set guidelines for healthcare provision with a view to the patients’ interests, not the interests of those who would profit (and profiteer) off the healthcare system.

Thanks to popular pressure, this single-payer solution sketched above is no longer entirely excluded from the Congressional shenanigans now under way. Why just the other day, Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was bold enough to meet with a handful of single-payer advocates! Baucus had previously refused to do anything of the sort, and even had a number of single-payer protestors at his committee’s hearings arrested for disrupting the sham proceedings he was presiding over. Baucus has also stashed away more campaign contributions from the health insurance industry than any other legislator. Thus everybody knows that his gesture was window-dressing; that the point of it was to diminish criticism, not to improve policy. There is, after all, plenty of criticism going around. This is one of those areas where media hostility and indifference have not succeeded in steering public opinion the wrong way. Nevertheless, so long as Obama and the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate are adamant about not doing the right thing, single-payer will get nowhere.

But now it looks like a pale second-best to the obvious solution has a chance. Thanks largely to Ted Kennedy and a few other “progressives” in the Senate, support is growing for a plan that Obama might get behind and that therefore might pass. According to initial reports, the Kennedy plan, still a work in progress, is similar to what John Edwards, and later Hillary Clinton, proposed during the campaign: it would mandate insurance coverage for everyone (during the campaign, Obama opposed mandates) – with subsidies for those who cannot get insurance through their jobs and who cannot afford to pay for it on their own. And it would establish a public insurance agency, either Medicare or something modeled on it, to compete with private insurers. How the mandate would be enforced, how large the subsidies would be and, above all, what kind of coverage the public plan would provide are still unsettled questions. Nevertheless, with single-payer effectively out of consideration, this has become the least bad position in the current “debate.” Count on opposition to it from Republicans and many Democrats – the “blue dogs” Obama courts assiduously. For them as for nearly all Republicans, any kind of public competition with “the free market” is anathema. And don’t expect Obama to abstain from going bipartisan on this one either. As becomes clearer with each passing day, though still light years better than Bush, Obama seems constitutionally incapable of doing better than wallowing in the middle; thus he is fast becoming a past master at disappointing (indeed, betraying) Obamamaniacs. Even so, with public opinion clearly on the side of bold moves, the plan that “progressive” Democrats forge may get through without being too badly compromised. But it won’t be easy.

Remember, though, that this allegedly best feasible option is not much of a solution. How good or bad it is depends, in large part, on what the public plan it will include, assuming Democrats hold fast on that key point, would provide. But even if the public plan is generous, it would not do much to lower costs because, unlike with single-payer, there would still be wasteful administrative costs at both ends – for health care providers, who would have to deal, as they now do, with myriads of (private) insurance plans, and, at the other end, with the for-profit insurance companies. The executives of these firms are in the health insurance business to make as much money as they can for their shareholders and for themselves -- tasks that raise (inefficient) administrative costs egregiously.

Nevertheless, if the public plan offers benefits comparable to good private plans, it just might provide a mechanism for backing into the obviously better solution – for who, other than doctrinaire free-marketeers, would want to be privately insured if they had a public alternative as good? Surely, no one in his or her right mind. This, I think, was what John Edwards envisioned. If the Kennedy plan is fleshed out along the lines Edwards proposed, it could set in motion a process that might, in time, end well – while modestly improving the situation from the beginning.

Thus the Democrats’ plan might turn out to be – not awful. But one has to wonder why Democrats who know better, Obama among them, don’t just go for single-payer? It’s a good question. The insurance companies’ hold over Congress and the White House no doubt explains something, but not the whole sad story. The illness merchants have been generous indeed – to those able to do them favors. But the forces gearing up to fight against what Obama and the Democrats will propose, if their proposal is even minimally decent, will fight as vigorously against a flawed plan as they would against single-payer. If insurance company profits are threatened significantly, count on them to fight it tooth and nail, just as they would the far better, single-payer alternative it has effectively replaced.

Of course, if Obama and the Democrats come up with something insurance companies won’t mind too much, it’s a different story. Then, much like tobacco industry executives finally came to see, health care profiteers would realize that it is best for them to concede a little to keep a lot. But if the Democrats remain steadfast; if, to the end, they support the pale approximation of a solution that is now being discussed, there’s no rationally defensible reason why they shouldn’t just go for the obvious solution itself.

I suspect therefore that the explanation lies less with campaign contributions or opportunistic political calculations or any of the other usual culprits, than with the “mind set” of the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity, itself. The Democrats’ GOP rivals may be bereft of sound ideas and, in comparison even with right-wing Democrats, unusually “challenged” morally and intellectually. But they are magnificently obstinate. Ridiculous as their positions are, their pursuit of them – and their dedication to obstruction for obstruction’s sake – almost rises to the level of the sublime. In marked contrast and notwithstanding Obama’s celebrated praise of audacity years ago, the stalwarts of the POP are so wedded to inching forward cautiously, even in cases where a smidgen of audacity is plainly called for and likely to succeed, that they just can’t forbear from acting like the invertebrate creatures they are.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Faith Based Diplomacy

[Note: I would have liked to post the following thoughts on the day of the Cairo speech, but I was unable to do so because my satellite collection to the internet was down, thanks to the mean spirited mischievousness of the alleged Divinity, who has been hurling rain and thunder down upon these parts with reckless abandon.]

With Cairo in lockdown, President Obama gave an eloquent and inspiring speech, short on details and full of weasel words. No surprise in that! As expected, the neo-cons and other friends of the Israeli Right have reacted cautiously but critically; they don’t dare tear into Obama now. As expected too, pro-Obama liberals (are there any other kind?) reacted enthusiastically-- pointing out, correctly, that Obama went further than any American president ever has in saying sensible things, and that his style and approach was better by many orders of magnitude than George W. Bush’s. At the same time, knowledgeable people at home and abroad have voiced skepticism that Obama’s words – “moderate” words, I might add -- will be followed by the deeds they imply. After all, the evidence so far on Obama’s style of governance is not encouraging. He talks a good earful and he has an abundance of political capital to spend. But when it comes to spending it, his first instinct is to go “bipartisan” or, what comes to the same thing in the current lingo, “pragmatic” -- keeping things pretty much on the track they were on before the Cheney-Bush criminal enterprise took a hard right turn. Obama’s (actually, Wall Street’s) economic recovery policies and his (actually, the insurance and pharmaceutical corporation’s) plans for health care reform are examples. So is his “stewardship” of the endless and already lost Bush wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why expect anything better when it comes to setting things right with “the Muslim world”? Whatever Obama might like to do – and I continue to believe that he knows better than his actions suggest – the constraints he faces are enormously powerful, and he has so far been singularly unwilling to spend political capital to counter them.

However, there is one very salutary thing Obama could have easily done in Cairo that he did not. He could have inserted the adjective “historically” into the phrase “the Muslim world.”

Is it not odd that “the West,” a cultural and political configuration, or the United States, a country, is nowadays unthinkingly juxtaposed with “Islam,” a community of co-religionists! I think this is insulting to “Muslims,” even if many of them seem to welcome it. People living in historically Muslim lands or descended from people who did deserve better. But in a political culture like ours, where religion -- along with military service (but that’s another story) -- is deemed worthy of unlimited respect in public discourse, don’t expect very many people outside the “hard” left, or what’s left of it, to agree.

To be sure, George W. Bush did once use the word “crusade,” suggesting to those with a sense of history that 9/11 marked a return to the late medieval struggles of Islam and Christianity. But his handlers soon corrected the mistake. They understood that, in today’s world, it makes little sense to invoke long out-dated notions of Christendom. Nowadays, no one this side of George Bush thinks that “the Christian world” -- or, in an ecumenical (and anti-Muslim) spirit, “the Judaeo-Christian world” -- is a meaningful designation. This is because, when it comes to us, everyone who still has the sense they were born (not “born again”) with realizes, without always realizing that they do, that only very indoctrinated or very deluded or very ignorant people genuinely believe what their ancestors did. Certainly, no one who accepts rational standards for belief acceptance does. The particular beliefs the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- advance are just too outlandish to be taken seriously. So is the core belief they share – in the existence of an all powerful, all knowing, perfectly good Being, who created all that is, and who takes a personal interest in what goes on “down” here on earth.

Of course, the West, especially the United States, is full of self-declared Christians and Jews and, in recent decades, self-declared Muslims too. But I would hazard that apart from the truly benighted, none of them really takes any of the nonsense they claim they believe seriously. Professed believers, the sensible ones anyway, if they are sincere, are in a state of self-deception, of “bad faith.” The West, especially the United States, abounds with believers in bad faith.

If there is a real divide in the world today, it is not between Islam and Christianity (or Christianity plus Judaism) but between those who are Muslims or Christians or Jews in bad faith – ironically, they’re the more sensible ones! – and the true believers, who have yet to assimilate lessons drawn conclusively by Enlightened thinkers more than two and a half centuries ago. In addition to the multitudes in bad faith, there are also alarmingly many true believers in “the West,” especially in our United States. But, fortunately, not so many as there were when notions like “Christendom” still made sense.

Is the historically Muslim world really so far behind? No doubt, there are pressures throughout that part of the world, similar to those in this part, that encourage professions of (bad) faith. With the Left in eclipse and imperialist predations on the rise, add on too the sad development that Islam, or at least “fundamentalist” versions of it, has become the “anti-imperialism of fools,” in much the way that, in another time and place, anti-Semitism became, as August Bebel famously put it, “the socialism of fools.” No doubt too, the ignorance and resentment that produce true believers in the ostensibly enlightened West also operate in the historically Muslim world. It would not be surprising if, after years of domination by maleficent Western powers, ignorance and resentment are even more virulent there than here. But this is hardly a state of affairs to encourage, much less to assimilate into the common sense of our political culture. That’s just what we do when we speak of “the Muslim world” without inserting “historically” into the phrase. If we can talk about the West as a cultural and historical unity; we should be able to talk about the historically Muslim world in a similar way. To do otherwise is to pander to backwardness.

That’s what Obama did, enlisting almost universal praise (even from “progressives” and even from “Muslims”). How easy it would have been for him, when speaking of his father, to emphasize that, though descended from Muslims, his father was a thoroughly secular man. It might not have been politic – at least for his principal audiences at home and abroad. But it would have been courageous – and right. But then what can we expect from someone who, plainly knowing better, declares himself a Christian. As Edmund Gibbon, referring to the world of Roman antiquity before the onslaught of Christianity, put it long ago: for the magistrate all religions are equally useful. [He also noted that they are all equally true to the benighted masses, and equally false to the learned (whom he called “philosophers”).]

How relevant is it that many “Muslims” welcome being identified religiously? I think it is appropriate to answer that question rhetorically: how relevant is it that many women welcome being objectified sexually or otherwise demeaned?

Liberals invented freedom of religion – in the modern sense, where religion is a matter of private conscience only, without political significance. By now, they have won over all right-thinking people. In this respect, we are all liberals now. We all believe that people should be free to believe even the most outlandish nonsense, and to live according to whatever rules they please. But it is one thing to protect religion from state and societal interference, and something else to encourage it in the “private sphere.” Unfortunately, encouraging it or, at least, legitimating it is what liberals, Democrats especially, have been doing with a vengeance ever since that day in 2004 when Karl Rove drove John Kerry to defeat by cynically calling out hordes of true believers. And it is what liberals of all political parties have been doing in more “moderate” ways for decades. Enough already!

Christians talk about loving the sinner, hating the sin. The time is long past due for liberals to recover the venerable and once widely shared conviction of everyone on the political Left, liberals included, that, for as long as they are in our midst, we should love the believers, but militate against, not pander to, their inexcusably preposterous beliefs.

So, one and a half cheers for Obama – for a speech that, for all its fair and balanced “moderation,” pushed the “reset” button on relations between the United States and “the Muslim world.” It would have been two cheers, if he had spoken of the historically Muslim world instead. For anything more than that, for the full three cheers, words, no matter how well or poorly chosen, are not enough – not in a part of the world where, for the best of reasons, skepticism still reigns and where, as everywhere, actions speak louder than words.