Here is a summer ZNet Update.
We slow down a bit in our mailings in the summer, but not entirely. You
can add or remove addresses, as always, at the ZNet top page ...
While slowing down in our mailings, we have speeded up in innovations,
and in the coming week or two you will begin seeing what will be
steadily escalating benefits of some new programming on the site. We
will also then pursue further the three ideas now foreshadowed on the
top page under the heading Doing and Reading...to which some of you have
lent your reactions.
On the down side, we have been having considerable trouble with our
blogging server...and at the moment, at least, the facilities by which
ZNet Sustainers can comment on blogs are not working. The blogs
themselves are fine, however, and very active. Take a look via the links
from the top page or via http://www.zmag.org/zblogs.htm
The regular updating of our top page proceeds as usual, and we hope you
visit regularly and keep pace. In addition to on-going material covering
diverse issues, vision, etc., we have our own distinctive coverage of
breaking election events and debates as well, and to round out this
message here are two such pieces.
First, immediately below is Paul Street's "Keynote Reflections" which
eloquently dissects Barack Obama's democratic convention keynote. Not
surprisingly, this touted speech wasn't all as humane as it was hyped to
be, by a long shot. And second, we also offer below Michael Albert's
"Election Hyperbole" comments on the commenting on the elections,
wondering about its virulence and volume.
I come from the same Chicago neighborhood (Hyde Park) as the nation's
official new political rock star Barack Obama. I work in urban policy
and civil rights and I've recently been telling leftists to engage in
"tactical" presidential voting - for Kerry in undecided states and for
leftists like Cobb or Nader in "safe" states. So I must have really
liked the charismatic former civil rights attorney Obama's
much-ballyhooed keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention on
Not really. Sorry, I might be (rather unenthusiastically) advising
people to vote Kerry in some jurisdictions next fall but I'm still a
leftist - the real thing, not the mythological sort created by the
crackpot right, which conflates the disparate likes of (say) Bill
Clinton, The New York Times, Tom Daschle, Al Franken, Michael Moore,
Noam Chomsky, and Che Guevara as part of the same ideological vision.
Equality Versus Equal Opportunity
And as a person of the real left, I am opposed to social inequality in
and of itself, whatever its origins. The massive socioeconomic
disparities that scar American and global life would be offensive to me
- and supremely damaging to democracy and the common good in my world
view - even if all at the top of the pyramid had risen to their
positions from an equal position at the starting line of a "level
playing field." There is no such field in really existing society, but
the creation of such an equal beginning would not make it any less toxic
and authoritarian for 1 percent of the U.S. population to own more than
40 percent of the nation's wealth (along with a probably higher
percentage of America's politicians and policymakers).
As the great democratic Socialist Eugene Debs used to say, the point -
for radicals, at least - is not to "rise from the masses, but to "rise
with the masses." Serious left vision is about all-around leveling
before, during, and after the policy process.
The world view enunciated in Obama's address comes from a very
different, bourgeois-individualist and national-narcissist moral and
ideological space. Obama praised America as the ultimate "beacon of
freedom and opportunity" for those who exhibit "hard work and
perseverance" and laid claim to personally embodying the great American
Horatio-Algerian promise. "My story," one (he says) of rise from humble
origins to Harvard Law School and (now) national political prominence,
"is part," Obama claimed "of the larger American story." "In no other
country on Earth," he said, "is my story even possible."
Obama quoted the famous Thomas Jefferson line about all "men" being
"created equal," but left out Jefferson's warnings about the terrible
impact of unequal outcomes on democracy and popular government. He
advocated a more equal rat-race, one where "every child in America has a
decent shot at life, and the doors of opportunity [the word
"opportunity" recurred at least five times in his speech] remain open to
Sorry, but those doors aren't even close to being "open to all." America
doesn't score particularly well in terms of upward mobility measures,
compared to other industrialized states (and Brazil's current chief
executive was born into that country's working-class). Every kid
deserves "a decent life," not just "a shot" at one. And such a life
isn't about living in a world of inequality or (see below) empire.
Democracy Versus Polyarchy
Real leftists are radical "small-d" democrats. They believe passionately
in substantive, many-sided, root and branch democracy. By democracy they
mean one-person, one-vote and equal policymaking influence for all,
regardless of class, wealth, ethnicity, and other socially constructed
differences of privilege and power. They are deeply sensitive to the
core Jeffersonian contradiction between democracy radically defined and
capitalism's inherent concentrations of wealth and power. They advocate
a political and social life where real, regular, and multi-dimensional
popular governance is structured into the institutional fabric of daily
experience and consciousness.
They are hardly enthralled by what passes for political "democracy" in
the United States, where highly ritualized, occasional, and fragmented
elections are an exercise in periodic pseudo-popular selection of
representatives from a "safe" and small circle of privileged "elites."
One term to describe really existing US "democracy" is "polyarchy," what
left sociologist William I. Robinson calls "a system in which a small
group actually rules and mass participation in decision making is
confined to leadership choices carefully managed by competing [business
and business-sanctioned] elites.
The polyarchic concept of democracy," notes Robinson, "is an effective
arrangement for legitimating and sustaining inequalities within and
between nations (deepening in a global economy) far more effectively
than authoritarian solutions" (Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy -
Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, Cambridge University
Press, 1996, p. 385).
Obama's address advanced a truncated, passive, and negative concept of
democracy, one where we are supposed to be ecstatic simply because we
don't live under the iron heel of open authoritarianism. It is an
American "miracle," he claimed, "that we can say what we think, write
what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door" and that "we
can participate in the political process without fear of retribution,
and that our votes will be counted -- or at least, most of the time."
Never mind that what we say and think is generally drowned out by the
giant, concentrated corporate-state media cartel and that our votes -
even when actually counted - are mere political half-pennies in
comparison to the structurally empowered super-citizenship bestowed upon
the great monied interests and corporations that rule our "dollar
democracy," the "best that money can buy." Jefferson and Madison tried
to warn us about that power disparity.
"Pleding Allegiance to the Stars and Stripes"
Real leftists are suspicious of those who downplay internal national
divisions, "patriotically" privileging "homeland" unity over class
differences and over international solidarity between people inclined
towards peace, justice, and democracy. We are deeply critical, of
course, of war and empire, which advance inequality and misery at home
and abroad. Global humanity - the species - and not "fatherland" or
nation-state, is the "reference group" that matters to us.
That's why many leftists cringed when they heard the newly anointed
Great Progressive Hope Obama refer to Americans as "one people, all of
us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the
United States of America." Its part of why I was uncomfortable when
Obama praised "a young man" named Shamus who "told me he'd joined the
Marines and was heading to Iraq the following week."
One of Shamus' endearing qualities, Obama thinks, is "absolute faith in
our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service." "I
thought," Obama said, "this young man was all that any of us might hope
for in a child." Not me. I hope for children who regularly and richly
question authority and subject the nation and its leaders/mis-leaders to
constant critical scrutiny.
Many of us on the left should have been disturbed when Obama discussed
the terrible blood costs of the Iraq invasion and occupation purely in
terms of the U.S. troops "who will not be returning to their hometowns,"
their loved ones, and other American soldiers dealing with terrible war
What about the considerably larger quantity (into the tens of thousands)
of Iraqis who have been killed and maimed as a result of U.S.
imperialism and whose numbers are officially irrelevant to U.S.
authorities? One of the problems with the American exceptionalism that
Obama espouses is that it feeds indifference towards "unworthy victims"
among peoples and nations less supposedly favored by "God" and/or
History than "beacon" America. This racially tinged coldness goes back
to the nation's founders, who thought their "City on a Hill" had been
granted the Creator-ordained right to eliminate North America's
original, Godless and unworthy inhabitants.
In the part of his speech that came closest to a direct criticism of the
Iraq invasion, Obama suggested that the Bush administrated has "shad[ed]
the truth" about why "U.S. troops were sent into "harm's way." He added
that the U.S. must never "go to war without enough troops to win the
war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world."
It's hardly a "war," however, when the most powerful imperial state in
history attacks and occupies a weak nation that it has already
devastated over years of deadly bombing and (deadlier) "economic
sanctions." "Securing the peace" is a morally impoverished and
nationally arrogant, self-serving description of the real White House
objective in Iraq: to pacify, by force when (quite) necessary, the
outraged populace of a nation that understandably resents an imperial
takeover it rightly sees as driven by the superpower's desire to deepen
its control of their strategically super-significant oil resources.
And "shade the truth" doesn't come close to doing justice to the
high-state deception - the savage, sinister, and sophisticated lying -
that the Bush administration used and is still using to cover their real
agenda, understood with no small accuracy by the people of Iraq.
The low point in Obama's speech came, I think, when he said the
following about his repeatedly invoked concept of "hope:"
"I'm not talking about blind optimism here - the almost willful
ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't talk
about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore
it. I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of
slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of
immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval
lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill
worker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a
funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too...In the
end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; a
belief in things not seen; a belief that there are better days ahead."
Sorry, but this leftist takes exception to this horrific lumping of
antebellum African-American slaves' struggles and sprituality with the
racist U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia - "the young naval lieutenant
line" is a reference to John Kerry's "heroic" participation in a
previous and much bloodier imperialist invasion, one that cost millions
of Vietnamese lives - under the image of noble Americans wishing
together for a better future. I suppose "God" (Obama's keynote made
repeated references to "God" and "the Creator") gave Nazi executioners
and Nazi victims the shared gift of hoping for better days ahead.
What told Kerry and his superiors that the Mekong Delta was theirs to
"patrol"? The same arrogant sensibilities, perhaps, that gave 19th
century white Americans permission to own chattel slaves and allowed the
Bush administration to seize Iraq as a neocolonial possession.
Popular Struggle, Not "Elite" Saviors
Need I bother to add in conclusion that leftists believe in organizing
and fighting alongside ordinary people for justice and democracy at home
and abroad, not in holding up as saviors great leaders from (whatever
their alleged humble origins ala Obama or John Edwards) within the
privileged "elite"? It was probably inherent in the nature of Obama's
keynote assignment that he would finish by saying that the swearing in
of Kerry and John Edwards as president and vice president will allow
America to "reclaim its promise" and bring the nation "out of this long
political darkness." It's inherent in my leftist sense of what democracy
and justice are about and how they are attained to say that a desirable
future will be achieved only through devoted, radically democratic rank
and file struggle for justice and freedom and not by hoping - or voting
- for benevolent "elite" actors working on behalf of any political party
and/or its corporate sponsors.
Paul Street ([EMAIL PROTECTED]) is an urban social policy
researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His book Empire and Inequality: America
and the World Since 9/11 (www.paradigmpublishers.com) will be published
in September, 2004.
By Michael Albert
I am constantly asked, nowadays, what should we do about the election?
More often, I am told to work for Cobb, work for Nader, or work for
Kerry. When I reply, I am often berated as an ultra left loon or a
sniveling democrat, as the case may be.
At ZNet I also see a stupendous volume of written election commentary. I
see so much that even if most of it wasn't highly fractious and
redundant, I would wonder if all the time going to eyeballing, debating,
celebrating, investigating, and otherwise hyperventilating the election
wasn't reducing attention going to other pursuits.
In reply to queries, my own views are:
(1) For Bush to lose will be a whole lot better than for Bush to win.
Holding one's nose and voting for Kerry in contested states is a good
thing to do, though I can certainly understand third party votes, even
in contested states.
(2) It makes sense to run radical campaigns to build movement
infrastructure, raise consciousness, and push mainstream candidates
left. To these ends, I prefer Cobb to Nader because Cobb is about
movement building and Nader has demonstrated since 2000 that he is a
poor movement builder. Still, I can understand someone feeling
(3) With hundreds of millions of dollars going to the campaign, and with
every notable commentator left of Attila the Hun (stay tuned for
imminent outpourings from Hollywood and Rock and Roll) helping Kerry,
the idea that endorsements from serious leftists are going to somehow
make a meaningful difference on Kerry's behalf, seems preposterous to
me. In fact, the benefits to Kerry of aggressive left support seem so
minuscule (if they are even positive) as to make it politically
inefficient for people well left of Kerry to move their attention away
from long term priority activities toward his campaign.
(4) Indeed, it may even be electoral suicidal to put aside long term
work since the deciding factor in the election will likely be elites'
perceptions of the probability that Bush can function without disastrous
movement and international response and derivative destabilization.
Leftists setting aside our antiwar and other activities will diminish
rather than increase elite fears. Instead of boosting Kerry we need to
provide visible signs that militant opposition is growing.
(5) In any event, a self-proclaimed leftist relating to the campaign in
a way that implies that Kerry or Clinton or Gore were or are good guys,
and that considers any of these Democrats honest much less exemplary,
and that fails to reiterate the ills of the Democratic Party, of our
system of government, and of capitalism, is something I cannot
But beyond my take, what do most leftist agree about and what's left
after that, that many leftists are intently debating?
There is a presidential election coming. We all agree on that.
One or the other of the two mainstream parties will produce the next
president. We all agree on that too.
Both Bush and Kerry represent corporate and other elite interests and
agree on preserving inequity and corporate domination. Neither candidate
is a friend to working people, women, minorities, or to anyone poor or
weak. To extol either candidate as virtuous, wise, moral, or exemplary,
much less as a tribune of justice and peace, denies the logic and
morality of being progressive much less of being anti-capitalist. We can
agree on that too, can't we?
Still, presidents affect the composition of diverse bureaucracies,
courts, policies, and programs, and perhaps even affect the balance of
power between society's contending constituencies and classes. I think
progressives agree about this too.
Regarding this election, it is at least plausible that who wins will
matter more than usual - perhaps even monumentally -- both in the
policies that ensue and in the psychological and cultural messages heard
by elites and electorates around the country and around the world. Where
the Bush camp and the Kerry camp differ is over how best to maintain or
expand society's defining gender, cultural, political, and economic
hierarchies. We leftists may reasonably disagree about the scale of the
difference between class enemy Bush and class enemy Kerry, but we would
be delusional to claim there is no difference.
Kerry is a vile warrior happy to defend corporate interests. Bush
believes military might produces diplomatic right, offense is
everything, and all obstacles and negotiation must be damned. Kerry will
weakly defend past progressive domestic social gains and under
sufficient pressure may plausibly expand some. In a second term Bush
will wage unrelenting war on virtually every progressive domestic social
advance of the past hundred years, even as he also elevates right-wing
fervor and fear with unknown repercussions.
Thus, another fact of this season's electoral calculations is that
whether Bush or Kerry wins will greatly affect various people's
immediate well being as well as broader domestic and international
It seems we still have found only generally agreed insights...but there
is more ground to cover.
How electoral campaigns are conducted can also have many and varied
effects, even beyond who wins. Regarding the two dominant parties,
mainstream campaigns of course overwhelmingly disenfranchise and
depoliticize people. This is why the media obliterated Howard Dean
despite that Dean is no less an ally of elite interests than Kerry is. I
don't know why Dean's campaign morphed to the point of threatening to
politicize young people and perhaps even poor people, but it did, and
since that is the penultimate violation of elite interests in American
politics, Dean's campaign had to be derailed, and it was.
Evidencing the same underlying dynamics, Kerry will try to win the
election not by contesting the allegiances of the 50% of the population
that typically doesn't vote, but instead by fighting to win a majority
of the 10% or so of swing voters in each state. In fact, if we count
only swing states, this election will probably address primarily 4% of
the voters and only 2% of the population.
More, Bush and Kerry's battle for swing voters is actually not even a
battle over the informed decisions of those individuals. It is a battle
for support from donors and media moguls who provide the means to
manipulate swing voters.
Kerry will campaign vigorously for the tiny swing group but will largely
ignore the massive non voter pool from which he could plausibly garner
landslide support. This is because Kerry just doesn't want support from
those sectors. He won't risk arousing them because to do so would
threaten his larger agendas. Anyone who doesn't understand how
structurally complicit in injustice the Democratic Party is has only to
fully comprehend this single fact to have the truth clearly register.
Back to the issues at hand, beyond the manipulative system-preserving
machinations of the major parties, third party campaigns can raise
activist consciousness and increase activist commitment and
organization. I suspect this claim too is generally agreed among
progressive commentators or, at any rate, it ought to be.
So the article after article, interview after interview, and letter
after letter about the election that are being written by leftists and
published in left venues aimed at other leftists seem to me to be either
confused or to be about the only things left to disagree over:
(a) The relative value of leftists apportioning time and energy to third
parties to win organizational and consciousness gains, versus
apportioning time and energy to beating class enemy Bush in order to win
the lesser evil benefits of electing class enemy Kerry, or
(b) The efficacy of electoral focus of any kind compared to getting on
with other uses of our time - for example continuing our on-going anti
war work, anti-corporate globalization work, feminist work, labor work,
anti-racist work, etc.
Now here is the thing. Whatever each person believes about these
matters, at this point there is undoubtedly more benefit in his or her
doing what he or she finds most warranted rather than wasting time
berating other leftists for having a different viewpoint.
By now the berating of other leftists is useless. Pretty much everyone
on the left knows where they stand. Few if any leftists are likely to
significantly change their approach. The only relevant new information
that may surface between now and November will be indications of likely
election voting, not positions of candidates or evidence of efficacy of
campaigning. So let's just give up the left on left electioneering, is
my advice. By doing so, we can collectively save a lot of time and avoid
a lot of needless arguing.
Next we have the endless stream of commentary by leftists telling
non-leftists to vote or to work for Kerry. Even for those who think
piling up votes for Kerry is of world historic importance, can this
allocation of astute and capable leftists' time make sense? Do we really
think that the non-left world is going to hear from us something that
they will feel has more credibility, more persistence, and more passion
than what they are going to hear, endlessly, from liberals? Do we really
think that our (hopefully equivocal) noises about voting for Kerry are
going to swing anyone who won't be swung first by much more aggressive
electioneering done by people they know and respect much more?
I don't believe it. And I certainly shudder every time our redundant
efforts to beat Bush take the form of saying anything remotely nice
about Kerry, who deserves nothing other than our steadfast opposition -
hopefully when he is President, to be sure. And I shudder as well when
our redundant efforts to beat Bush, or to urge others to do so, seem to
be crowding out attention to the war, globalization, movement building
per se, and so on.
In short, I guess what I am saying is that whatever your electoral
inclinations, at this point repetitive, redundant entreaties about Kerry
and Bush from leftists to other leftists, and even about Nader and Cobb
from leftists to other leftists, and probably also entreaties from
leftists to more mainstream citizens about Kerry/Bush, are most likely
not the most efficient way to productively manifest our insights and
utilize our energies.
So we are down to one debatable disagreement, it seems. In contested
states should leftists spend any time trying to increase the vote for
Cobb or Nader instead of being quiet or aiding Kerry? This is
contentious. Logically, writing and speaking about it could affect
people's choices. But I bet those who are for aiding Cobb or Nader are
not going to convince those who are against doing so that they should
start doing it. And I bet those who are against aiding Cobb or Nader are
not going to convince those who are for doing so that they should stop
doing it. So what is the point of reams of back and forth debate that
can sour otherwise positive relations, I wonder?
At this point, the arguments have been made. So why don't we just do our
things, hopefully including non electoral things, leaving one another
alone, and letting the results of our separate efforts impact subsequent
choices? I bet all sides will be better off for it.
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