Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King Day

Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The few people who attend official ceremonies will hear much about non-violence and King's hopes for racial harmony. Orators will describe a peacefully re-ordered society where race is no impediment to success, where the vestiges of Jim Crow, which were ubiquitous in King's life, have peacefully disappeared. This is a vision to which no conscientious person can object, of course, but it's incomplete. In our quest for heroes who don't particularly threaten us, we have constructed a "King," with whom we can all (or nearly all--there are still troglodytes out there who'd like to abolish the holiday) feel comfortable.

The reality is that King was a radical. He questioned the way American society is organized, especially its economic system. This is the King that our contemporary politicians, of both parties, will not be eulogizing today.

A few months before he was murdered, King addressed the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in Atlanta. The compete text is available here and makes for fascinating reading. The title is "Where Do We Go from Here."

Among other things, King challenged the legitimacy of American capitalism. He knew that the poor of this country--of any color--would never be free so long as they were ruthlessly exploited by a system that denied their basic humanity. In a country where wealth and resources remain controlled by a few, justice is not possible: "We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, 'Why are there forty million poor people in America?' And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the oil?' You begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the iron ore?' You begin to ask the question, 'Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?'"

King understood that American capitalism, which, one should never forget, developed with the labor and sweat of African slaves, leads to the dehumanization and exploitation of human beings and to imperialism: "The whole structure must be changed. A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will … make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together." How sadly accurate this analysis of America was. And how sad it is to note how well it fits the Bush-Cheney administration.

Since King died, things have gotten worse. There has been a massive movement of wealth into the hands of an obscenely rich elite. In the last 30 years, as Bob Herbert reminds us in Sunday's New York Times, “The distribution of wages, income and wealth in the United States has become vastly more unequal over the last 30 years. In fact, this country has a more unequal distribution of income than any other advanced country.” To find out what's really going on with respect to the American economy, check out the web site of the Economic Policy Institute.

Martin Luther King would be appalled by the failure of this country--and both political parties--to deal with economic injustice. He knew that a government that serves only the rich promotes injustice and demeans human dignity. Wouldn't it be great if some of today's orators would talk about the real Dr. King?

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Surge, Another Look

The headline for a piece in USA Today for 18 Jan. 2008, mostly reprinted in the Port Huron Times Herald for the same date, claims, "Military says 75% of Baghdad areas now secure." The article makes a series of assertions about how security has improved in that beleaguered city since the arrival of additional American troops. On the surface, these claims are probably more or less accurate; in much of Baghdad, street violence is down. This is obviously a good thing.

But the fact that the article stops there tells us volumes about what is wrong with the way mainstream American media report on Iraq. Tom Engelhardt has an excellent account in The Nation of what the media are too lazy or too corrupt to tell us. Let's take a brief look at just a few important issues not addressed in the media most Americans read or watch:

* Iraqi authorities say they will not be able to maintain security without American help until 2018. The president has admitted that is is the case.

* Baghdad has become a largely Shia city: see here and here. This is the real reason the violence is down. Those responsible for most of the ethnic killing have, for now anyway, won. Neighborhoods have been ethnically cleansed. But this doesn't mean those driven from their homes won't try to come back. The momentary lull is fragile. Even if the Sunni don't try to return to their homes, declaring the current situation a triumph rewards aggression and ducks responsibility for enabling it.

* The Iraqi government has done virtually nothing to show it can actually govern. The recent legislation that appears to allow ex-Baath party members to return to government jobs is a sham. It provides no evidence that any sort of settlement between Shia and Sunni is in the works.

The Bush-Cheney surge has bought time. Iraq is not on the front page, and it's not seriously discussed by the presidential candidates of either party. The Unites States has brought unimaginable suffering, dislocation, and damage to Iraq. A momentarily diminished level of violence may keep us from thinking about Iraq for a while, but the unavoidable certainty that this invasion/occupation is the worst foreign policy disaster in American history is not going away.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Surge

It's disappointing to note the almost complete absence of any serious discussion of Iraq among the leading Democratic candidates. They all appear, more or less, to want the U.S. out, and they disagree only slightly on how fast that should happen. But they obviously don't want to talk about Iraq in any detail. One reason for this, I fear, is that, along with too many others, they think the "surge" has actually accomplished something. Or else they know it hasn't and don't want to appear to contradict the media-promoted conventional wisdom.

While the level of street violence has in fact decreased in recent months, the major announced objective of the surge, the creation of political space for the Iraqi government to get its act together and actually do some governing, has clearly not been achieved.  The pressing issues--distribution of oil revenue, writing a useful constitution, and figuring out how the major ethnic groups can live together in one country--remain disastrously unresolved.  For a satisfyingly acute expression of how far from successful the surge has been see this essay at Truthout by Congressman Robert Wexler of Florida. For an equally trenchant assessment of what all this silence really means, see this essay in today's New York Times Magazine by Noah Feldman.

We should not forget that the main reason the day-to-day violence in Baghdad has diminished is that entire neighborhoods have been ethnically cleansed. The Sunnis and Shi'ia simply don't live near each other any more. Millions of Iraqis are either dead or displaced. The surge can never erase their suffering. It can only, and only momentarily, distract Americans from contemplating what our government has done in our name.

The American misadventure in Iraq is just as much a failure as it has ever been. Its consequences will haunt whoever is elected President in November. Until our politicians grapple meaningfully with Iraq, there's little hope that the endgame will be any less catastrophic than what we've seen the last five years.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Election: Random Thoughts

(Caveat lector: The following reflects my own coffee-addled meanderings, not an official position adopted by BlueNovember.)

Michael Moore has posted a thoughtful analysis of the three Democratic front runners. He declines to make an outright choice, but it's clear he's leaning to Edwards. At Alternet, Norman Solomon offers a cogent argument for why those who have been sticking with Kucinich should consider shifting to Edwards; like many of us, he's mystified by Kucinich's decision to instruct his supporters in Iowa to switch to Obama after the first ballot. Kucinich has been the most progressive, forthright candidate in the Democratic pack, and Edwards is the frontrunner with the positions closest to his. It makes no sense for Kucinich folks to move toward Obama. Go figure.

The primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina will probably settle Edwards's chances. If he can win or even finish close in NH and then win in SC, he stays viable. If he doesn't, then I'm for Obama as the obvious best bet to stop Clinton. I don't hate Clinton the way many progressives seem to. Though I find her vote on the Iraq war resolution and her failure to make amends for it to be unforgivable, and though her later support of a resolution declaring an element in the Iranian security apparatus a "terrorist" organization seems equally politically motivated, I don't think, in the long run, that a Clinton presidency would be much different from an Obama presidency. They both would have to deal with a Neanderthal Congress (even it's run by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi), and they both have far too many ties to corporate interests (consider, for example, Obama's cozy relationship with big coal). I find Obama's endless talk of "change" to be vague, almost empty. But when it comes down to choosing between Obama and Clinton, I pick Obama, simply because I think he has a better chance of winning next November. Clinton has too many negatives with too many voters, who I think are more likely to move toward a relatively fresh face. Obama and Clinton are offering policy positions much more similar than different. Edwards's are better, especially with respect to the power of wealth in our political culture, but the media have opted to marginalize him (just look at the coverage in today's New York Times [h/t, jj]), and that may mean the end of his chances. So if we're left with Clinton and Obama, I'm going with Obama.

Another thing: when the hell is this country going to make its elections remotely democratic? The travesty of the Iowa caucuses and the obscene wads of money dumped there on television, political operatives, and god knows what else should ring alarm bells across the land. And now it's on to New Hampshire, another nearly all-white, low-population, rural state. Why in the world do these backwaters have so much authority in the selection of the American president? From the primaries to the Electoral College, the American system of voting is dysfunctional, undemocratic, and unrepresentative. Today's Times Herald offers a predictably vapid essay (not available on line) by DeWayne Wickham on the putative superiority of the process by which Americans elect their president, with the absurd claim that it offers "the world a lesson in self-governance that can be learned nowhere else around the globe"; I don't think the irony in that declaration was intended. You could say that the lesson suggested by our system is indeed unique. It's uniquely chaotic and unreflective of the popular will, and no people in their right mind would adopt it. In France (a country and a culture the American right wing loves to ridicule), to offer a counter-example, people vote for president, and the candidate with the most votes wins. Sounds pretty straightforward, does it not? In the United States, we can't do anything so obvious. Just ask Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000. That's a lesson for the world? Wayne, you must be joking!

The messiness of the whole process is well exemplified by the Michigan Democratic primary, which apparently is completely meaningless--not to mention a waste of money. I'm considering voting in the republican primary, just to muddy their already turbulent waters. Whom I should vote for? I'm thinking McCain is now the front runner, and I predict he'd be a formidable opponent. I also think he's nuts, so I don't want to help him. Giuliani scares the sox off me (take a look at Elizabeth Kolbert's probing analysis of Rudy in the New Yorker), so I sure don't go for him. Huckabee's a flake, and a win for him would upset the party bosses, but he's also pretty scary and might surprise us all. Romney is an empty suit, and I think any one of the leading Dems could take him down. So maybe I'll give him my vote on the 15th.