Friday, December 31, 2010

SPEECHES THAT SPEAK TO OUR TIMES

Harry Targ

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence--economic, political, even spiritual--is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes…

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research…. a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity….

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific/technological elite (Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961).

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Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967).

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In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends
(Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979).

Words Still Matter

We have become so drugged by politicians that we often fail to reflect on the power of their words. Seeing books on library shelves with titles like “Speeches of Great Americans” culls up in our minds Readers Digest, the History Channel, Sunday morning sermons, and all the crap that passes for political discourse in the 21st century. Even profound speeches, and the lives of profound political actors, are transformed, debased and normalized, such that the power of words or deeds becomes acceptable to ruling classes and even made to have commercial value.

Every once in a while though a politician or activist says something that is rich with theoretical insight and inspiration and begs for action. The power of the words cannot be demeaned, delegitimized or made palatable to all. And, it behooves progressives to revisit those words and use them for practical political work.

The Military/Industrial Complex

When President Eisenhower gave his final address to the nation on January 17, 1961, 50 years ago, he warned of “the acquisition of unwarranted influence” of a military/industrial complex. He originally included the word “academic” but later eliminated it, probably for reasons of length. He was alerting Americans to the breadth and scope of military power over the world and American society.

The President’s words constituted a shocking challenge to the soon-to-be Kennedy era defense intellectuals who criticized the outgoing president’s reluctance to spend even more than the $40 billion he invested on the military. Even his direct orders to subordinates to overthrow Guatemala’s President Jacob Arbenz and Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and his declaration of the Middle East as a free-world sanctuary was not enough for the 1960s theorists and practitioners of “modernization,” “development,” and “democracy.”

Although Eisenhower warned us of the impacts of the military/industrial complex he could not foresee the magnitude of the controls on America’s public life that soon resulted. First, he only dimly saw the changes that would occur in the techniques of empire. CIA money ensured election outcomes in other countries. American intelligence and military forces engineered brutal military coups. Military advisors revamped armies and repressive police forces in countries threatened by revolutionary change. The United States used “low intensity conflict” to train anti-government reactionaries. And then to mollify domestic critics, the U.S. initiated the privatization and outsourcing of the military as an adjunct to the over 700 U.S. military bases in more than 40 countries. Most recently, high tech weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, are used to kill people without endangering U.S. soldiers. Technological advances and the globalization of U.S. violence continue.

Eisenhower was inalterably opposed to the militarization of the U.S. economy. While he was willing to allot $40 billion in 1950s currency, he resisted the demands from Beltway liberals and defense contractors to double military spending. By the 1960s, half of the federal budget began to go to the military and one in ten workers derived wages from defense contracts. And that continues, but with less public criticism.

Finally, Eisenhower spoke to the militarization of American culture. The university became a research arm of the complex. Students were taught about the virtues of military “readiness,” “the communist threat,” the problem of “human nature” and perpetual war, and, more recently, the endless danger of “terrorism.” Virtually every large corporation, producing such products as toothpaste, toys, breakfast cereal, medications, automobiles, electronics, or energy, is steeped in military contracts. The public airwaves, the internet, movies, and sports are laced with war, violence, killing, and competition. As Eisenhower put it: “Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved: so is the very structure of our society.”

Making War Overseas and Advancing Hunger At Home

In April, 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at Riverside Church in New York City and made it crystal clear that wars elsewhere not only kill the designated enemies, but impoverish poor working people at home. Dr. King made a critical contribution to the discussion of the link between war and foreign policy and people’s lives. Killing in other lands is an immoral abomination. While that needs to be critically understood, the unequal distribution of wealth and income within the United States is stark and is intimately connected to foreign adventures. And, in fact, the more resources that are allocated for killing others, the less there are to serve the needs of those at home.

President Lyndon Johnson, who increased the U.S. troop commitment from 16,000 in 1963 to 540,000 in 1968 and who launched daily bombing of targets in North and South Vietnam in 1965 that went unabated until 1968 tried to create a “war” on poverty at home. Dr. King knew that this country could not do both: that there was an inverse relationship between war-making and domestic prosperity. As he put it: “I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam.” And as the years unfolded and the United States shifted from a military draft to a volunteer army, the percentage increased of those who could not find jobs and earn a decent income and became the foot soldiers for future wars.

Corporate/Financial Elites and the Creation of Self-Indulgence

Perhaps the least known of the prophetic speeches cited above is the one presented on television in July, 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. He was called to speak about the growing energy crisis, dramatic increases in the price of oil, growing dependency on foreign oil, concentrated economic power in Washington, and the celebration of a culture of self-indulgence, consumerism, materialism, and competition.

While this speech did not address foreign and military policy as directly as the other two, it warned the American people about the dangers of war, foreign dependency on oil, and an international system driven by oil giants and oil-rich countries. He linked these to a domestic culture that defined its success on the basis of how much it could consume.

President Carter challenged the basic precept of the corporate culture that evolved out of industrial and monopoly capitalism in the twentieth century; its basic paucity of meaning and purpose. “But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

What Can We Learn From These Famous Speeches

We should bring to our political work the idea that words still matter. In addition, we must reflect upon the possibility that mainstream politicians, presidents for example, may say things that should and could be appropriated to build a progressive agenda. And, perhaps more difficult, we need to cut through the propaganda which often leads political figures to be lionized and thus transformed into everyday icons. Dr. King was a radical, against racism, sexism, and classism. He opposed war. He saw the vital interconnections between massive governmental waste and human suffering. And he saw that the direction U.S. society was heading in was pure “madness.”

Substantively, we should revisit these speeches to raise again our opposition to war and empire and military spending. We need to stand with our brothers and sisters who are demanding jobs and justice. And we must stand with those, whether secular or religious, who argue against a self-indulgent, consumption-based and competitive society.

Monday, December 27, 2010

ACHIEVEMENTS AND DISAPPOINTMENTS DURING THE OBAMA YEARS: WHY?

Harry Targ


Changing Media Frames of Political Reality


I am an inveterate watcher of MSNBC, the “liberal” spectrum of the “mainstream” media. Reflecting on the last two years of American political life, often through their eyes but also through other mainstream media outlets, I have been fascinated by the swings in interpretations of the performance of the Obama administration and Congress.


During the campaign, Obama was doomed, according to the media, several times by such crises as the remarks by Reverend Wright and Obama’s alleged snobbish rendition of the flaws of working class consciousness. On the other hand, the media presented Obama as the savior of the United States reputation overseas, the committed anti-war activist, the environmentalist, union supporter, and the African American candidate who could bring the country together in a post-racial era. We cried as the President-elect celebrated victory with the slogan “Yes We Can.”


Within a month of Obama’s entering office riding a massive swing to the Democratic Party in the House and Senate, media pundits were speculating about an historic shift in national politics and whether it would equal the transformation of political life that occurred in the 1930s.


But then, the Obama administration and its allies in Congress began to experience roadblocks in efforts to provide an adequate economic recovery stimulus package and to radically reform health care. Climate change legislation and pro-union legislation went off the table. Congress and the White House launched a two-year discussion about ending discrimination against gays in the military. And most importantly, economic recovery, jobs and growth stalled. To top it off, after an extensive in-house review of United States foreign policy toward Afghanistan, the Obama administration chose to escalate U.S. military involvement in that country.


Media frames shifted dramatically (in all but the rightwing Fox empire which was hostile all along) from the new political alignment in American politics to discussions of incompetence in Congress, Obama’s inability to lead, Obama’s reluctance to go back out to the people to mobilize support for his policies, to critiques of Obama’s strategy of compromising with the rightwing in Congress even before negotiations begin.


Then the Tea Party emerged. The American politics in crisis frame dominated stories, at least on television. Names like Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Jim DeMint, dominated the news. While anger and frustration, particularly with the enormous economic suffering, was real the media exaggerated the strength of the Tea Party movement. And on November 2, the elections showed a dramatic shift to the Republican Party at the national and state levels. The savior of our economic and political life of 2008 had become, as the media told us, the pariah of 2010.


Lame Ducks and Triumphal Returns


After the elections, right wingers licked their chops eagerly waiting for 2012 and the prospects of electing representatives of the ruling class who would return America to the Gilded Age. Many progressives saw in the Obama presidency and the Democratic Party majority future adversaries, not potential allies for change. And many, particularly youth, were seen as losing their enthusiasm for any and all politics. Finally, liberals, including Obama, claimed that the answer to the “shellacking” of 2010 was more compromise with Republican foes in the future. No one thought the “Lame Duck” session of Congress, November and December 2010, would create anything other than stalemate and acrimony among the two parties and a further sense of despondency among the progressive majority.


But to everyone’s surprise, Congress, led by Obama, secured passage of the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that discriminated against gays in the military. The Senate passed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and Congress passed legislation giving some financial support to 9/11 responders who are suffering from health infirmities resulting from their rescue efforts.


And, in addition, Obama, almost despite his Democratic colleagues in the Congress, secured a piece of mega-legislation that extended Bush tax cuts to the super-rich but also the vast majority of Americans, continued unemployment insurance for those out of work between 26 and 99 weeks, saved Pell grants for needy college students, and added additional tax breaks for worthy and unworthy purposes. However, Congress resisted passing the DREAM Act which would have provided a path to citizenship to young people who came to the United States without papers, attended college, and/or enlisted in the military.


The Lame Duck session since mid-December has been touted as an enormous victory for progressive forces. MSNBC commentators have begun to say that maybe they had been too harsh on Obama all along. Reviewing the list of legislative accomplishments and executive orders since 2009, they have concluded that this has been the most activist (and progressive) period in American political history since the days of Lyndon Baines Johnson. For some, the most recent victory, DADT repeal, symbolizes the slow but dogged determination of an administration that must struggle against dysfunctional legislative hurdles to achieve any success at all.


So now the media frame, everywhere but FOX, Limbaugh and the rest of the neo-fascist crowd, is back to Obama the crusader, and Democrats the progressives.


What to Make of All This?


Well from the standpoint of building a progressive majority, the incumbent administration has made some significant advances. Several policy changes, such as reauthorizing U.S. aid to international agencies that provide family planning advice, remain below the public radar. Repeal of DADT is worthy of celebration. Support for 9/11 responders is basic to a humane society. Some health care reform is better than none. Pell Grants need to be extended if we do not want our colleges and universities to be populated only by sons and daughters of the wealthy. And the inadequate economic stimulus package saved jobs and whole industries, such as auto.


But the other side of the story is instructive. This administration has participated in tax reduction for the super wealthy, froze wages for federal employees, did not struggle to save unemployment for the 99ers, has signed off on a U.S./South Korean trade agreement that Lori Wallach, Global Trade Watch, claims will be of the magnitude of NAFTA. In essence U.S. and South Korean workers will be the victims of an agreement that reduces barriers to capital flight and financial speculation. While this list can be expanded, I only add that the foreign policy agenda of this administration has been one of extending, not retracting empire, in South Asia, in the Gulf, in Africa, and in Latin America.


In sum, lame duck aside, the Obama administration has continued to support the interests of finance capital at home and abroad at the expense of workers everywhere. What the world calls “neo-liberalism,” that is policies to cut government programs, extend privatization and deregulation of economies, and reduce wages and living conditions is the operant vision at home and abroad. The issue in the end comes down to “class,” and “class struggle.”


We can and should applaud the progressive victories (many of which are part of the social agenda) at the same time that we build a political movement that demands jobs and income now and an end to empire. By assessing the policies, the issues, and their impacts, progressives can determine where to go from here. And at this stage the class and anti-imperial issues must remain central to our work.

Monday, December 13, 2010

MAYBE THE PROBLEM WITH OUR POLITICS IS FACEBOOK

Harry Targ

The other day a friend came in my office to ask if I had a blog. I said that I did. He then asked if I was interested in expanding my readership. I said “sure.” He then said that he knew I was on Facebook. Had I thought of putting a link to my blog on my Facebook profile, he asked.

Well this proposal seemed to be a good idea so I went on Facebook. After fumbling around I found the page with information about my age, residence, interests, and other data. My daughter helped me set this stuff up a year ago when I joined Facebook. Since that time I have signed on a large number of “friends.” I knew some of them. Others I think share common political views with me.

I don’t really use Facebook very much but I do read what my daughter is doing (what used to be called parental supervision). But I figured that adding a link to my blog might lead to dramatic increases in my readership. (I don’t know how to check how many folks actually read it but I fantasize that it is in the millions, at least).

At any rate, I went to my profile page on Facebook and typed in the link to my blog (which incidentally is www.heartlandradical.blogspot.com). When I was typing in the link I noticed that there was an empty box labeled married. I figured that my daughter and I had failed to fill in that box when I originally registered. So I typed “yes” in the box.

This is an aside but I must relate here that my wife and I got married on August 2, 1964, the day of the first alleged incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. We were driving off to our honeymoon and heard on the car radio that the North Vietnamese had attacked two United States vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, of course in international waters. As you know a second attack was claimed to have occurred two days later and as a result President Johnson asked Congress for authority to make war on the Vietnamese people. Later we all learned that these North Vietnamese attacks on the two vessels, which were not in international waters, had not occurred.

However, driving off to our honeymoon, I declared with all the political science knowledge I had gleaned from undergraduate and graduate study, “President Johnson is too smart to get involved in a land war in Asia.” My new wife, who had only taken Political Science 101 responded: “You just wait and see.”

So I remember that I have been married to the same woman, who only had one political science course, for a long time. Just a further aside: On the morning of August 2, 1990, I was driving back from the florist with roses to present to my wife for our anniversary. I heard on the radio that Saddam Hussein had sent thousands of Iraqi troops into Kuwait. So with wars in Vietnam and Iraq as a backdrop, political husbands are not likely to forget marriages and anniversaries.

But back to Facebook. After I filled in the link to my blog and indicated that I was married I started to get congratulations messages. A few Facebook friends wrote: “Why did you wait so long?” At first I did not understand why I was getting these silly messages. Then it dawned on me that the marriage box I filled out probably referred to changes in marital status.

When I went back to my profile page on Facebook I could not figure out how to correct whatever it was that I had done wrong. Nor could I figure out how to tell my Facebook friends that I indeed was married and had been so since the first Gulf of Tonkin incident. (Incidentally I don’t care if people are married or not or who their partners are. I was just interested in clarifying what my status was). In fact, I was afraid that if I changed that box on the profile page it might suggest to Facebook friends that I had gotten a divorce, which would seem particularly weird having occurred just two days after getting married.

Well, fortunately after I wrote my daughter for help she was able to send a message indicating that I had been happily married for a long time (even though my wife’s prediction about the Vietnam war was correct and mine dead wrong).

Then I got to reflecting about how easy it was to send an erroneous message via Facebook or other social network sites. What flashed across my mind were the various policies pursued by President Barack Obama that I disagreed with. I supported single payer and he didn’t. I was for a vast jobs stimulus package, particularly a green jobs agenda. I support climate change legislation. I want significant immigration reform and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. I surely oppose renewing tax cuts for the rich.

Then I asked myself whether it was possible that President Obama, during times when these issues were debated in Congress, made the same mistakes on Facebook or other forms of electronic communication that I did in the marriage box of my profile page. In other words, maybe our President has in fact tried to support a progressive agenda but because of the ease with which errors can be made communicating on the internet, he has been sending the wrong messages to Congress and the American people. Frankly, I hope this is true because it would make policy change a whole lot easier.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

CONSERVATIVE HEARTLAND TOWN APPRECIATES JOBS PROGRAM

Harry Targ


At the east end of town, at the foot of the hill
Stands a chimney so tall that says "Aragon Mill."
But there's no smoke at all coming out of the stack.
The mill has shut down and it ain't a-coming back.

Well, I'm too old to work, and I'm too young to die.
Tell me, where shall we go, My old gal and I?
There's no children at all in the narrow empty street.
The mill has closed down; it's so quiet I can't sleep.

Yes, the mill has shut down; it's the only life I know
Tell me, where will I go, Tell me, where will I go?
And the only tune I hear, is the sound of the wind
As it blows through the town,
Weave and spin, weave and spin.

(from Si Kahn, “Aragon Mill”)


President Obama Comes to Town

On a cold and sunny Tuesday morning Air Force One flew into the Grissom Air Base just north of Kokomo, Indiana carrying President Barack Obama and Vice- President Joe Biden. Just two days before Thanksgiving the presidential team had programmed a trip to highlight job stimulus successes in this declining factory town in North Central Indiana. Democratic leaders, outgoing Senator Bayh and Congressman Joe Donnelly, were part of a delegation to welcome the visitors.

According to press reports, bigger welcomes than from politicians were noted among Kokomo UAW workers and children from local elementary schools. Kokomo is one of Indiana’s small manufacturing towns dominated by the auto industry (along with Anderson, and Indianapolis). Kokomo, with a population of only 46,000, houses 10 parts plants operated by General Motors, Chrysler, and Delphi. As recently as 1990 Indiana was ranked tenth in union density, largely due to auto and steel plants around the state. Kokomo’s UAW Local 685 played a pivotal role in the campaign to pressure Indiana Congressmen to vote “no” on NAFTA in 1994.

Because of declining manufacturing and the crisis in the auto industry, unemployment in Howard County (where Kokomo is located) topped out at 20.4 per cent in June, 2009. With the federal program to save the auto industry and various stimulus packages to save local jobs, including Kokomo fire stations, unemployment has been cut to 12.7 per cent. Jerry Price, president of UAW local 685 representing three Chrysler transmission plants pointed out that “The bailout has meant the survival of Kokomo.”

The White House reported that a Recovery Act grant of $89 million helped open a plant to make parts for hybrid vehicles. Also Chrysler invested $300 million in transmission plant renovation leading to the retention of 1,000 jobs. In addition, government funds stimulated the opening of twelve new businesses in the city’s downtown, including Sweet Poppins, a pop corn shop. Tashia Johnson-St. Clair, the shop’s owner, said the downtown area used to be like a ghost town. After the government funds stimulated new businesses downtown, she said: “It’s absolutely beautiful. It looks like a scene off a TV show.”

The Kokomo Tribune noted in muted terms the general appreciation of Kokomo residents for the government’s job saving and creation programs:

“The workers, many of whom undoubtedly voted to end the president’s Democratic House majority two weeks ago, applauded the speech, particularly when both Obama and Biden referenced the news that the American automakers are gaining market share for the first time in 24 years.” (Scott Smith, Kokomo Tribune, November 23).

Critics of the Obama/Biden Visit

Not every Hoosier politician or activist appreciated the presidential visit or the
policies it was trumpeting. Governor Mitch Daniels was too busy to attend the Kokomo celebration. Indiana state party chairman Murray Clark said that the presidential team “are here today to cherry pick a single success story: at worst, it further proves how out of touch this administration is with an electorate that sent a clear message on Nov. 2.” Local Tea Party activists condemned Obama’s stimulus policies arguing that businesses should be allowed to fail, rather than “throwing money” at them. (Labor activists have concluded that Kokomo would have been destroyed as a city without the emergency assistance).

Perhaps the most telling commentary appeared in an editorial in the Lafayette Journal and Courier on Monday, November 29, 2010. It denied that Kokomo’s economic rejuvenation should be seen as an indicator of a more general economic recovery. The editorial reminded readers that Kokomo still had almost 12 per cent unemployment and the state and nation close to ten per cent unemployment.

The Journal and Courier argued that the accolades and pep talks provided by Obama and Biden were misguided. What the president should have done was to “discuss how he planned to work with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives to reach compromises for job creations….Tuesday’s visit was a missed opportunity for Obama to celebrate Chrysler’s investment in Kokomo while reassuring workers across the country how he planned to create jobs working with a split Congress.”

The Kokomo Dilemma

As the song says, “The mill has shut down: it’s the only life I know.” Under capitalism production and reproduction of life requires work- wage labor- for most people. Jobs are central to life. But in an era of financialization and economic crisis jobs are declining, workers are pitted against each other worldwide to work for less, and with declining incomes demand for products decline. Towns and cities are destroyed by lack of investment. The industrial base of the Midwest has been in decline for years. Whole regions of countries have experienced economic devastation. And employed workers everywhere live in fear for their economic security.

Government stimulus packages don’t resolve the growing contradictions between the shift toward jobless economies, declining wages, and reduced demand for goods and services. But they do provide relief for those who suffer. Kokomo, Indiana, is a success story. It needs to be replicated all around the country. And tales of successes need to be heralded from coast to coast.

The political dilemma, however, is reflected in the newspaper editorial cited above. Critics of government efforts to create and maintain jobs, such as reflected in this editorial, rather than encouraging greater efficiencies and improvements in government programs, demand the Obama administration “reach compromises” with political opponents who have made it clear they will never work with the administration.

The dilemma the Kokomo story poses for progressives is how to force the administration and its allies in Congress to fight for job creation programs in the face of an opposition that is inalterably opposed to these goals.