Monday, December 31, 2007

Sitting On the Fence Is Creasing My Activist Butt

Warning, this is a long post. It’s long because supporting a presidential candidate for me is deeply personal. It’s not simply deciding which candidate I will pull the lever for in the privacy of a voting booth. Rather I approach the decision as an activist and ask myself: after weighing all the virtues and flaws of the declared candidates on whose behalf am I willing to devote my free time?

In my darker moments I’ll ask myself, “Do any of these lying corporatist whores deserve my support? Why bother with any of them?” The ship has long sailed on my days of being a "true believer."

Ultimately, in spite of my disenchantment, I believe in the power of the vote. Even with the sordid history of stolen elections and broken promises, I remain convinced the best way to change the system is through participation in the political process. And the best vehicle for progressive reform is by leveraging the Democratic Party – flawed as it is. Which means I have to finally stop creasing my butt, get off the fence and choose a candidate.

Picking a candidate this primary season has been especially agonizing. My top choices were former Vice President Al Gore and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold. I would’ve volunteered for either in a heartbeat. When both opted not to run I was left cold and preferred to wait until the race sorted itself out.

Meanwhile, this past year I amused myself reading blog postings on Daily Kos and elsewhere expressing certitude about the virtues of particular candidates while trashing rival campaigns. The theme was usually along the lines of “only my candidate is the true progressive with a chance to win while so and so is simply an enabler of the corporate pro-war plutocracy who will destroy the Democratic Party and eat your children.”

The only certitude I felt was disenchantment with Hillary Clinton whom I believe would govern entirely from weakness and be an agent of the status quo. Furthermore, I never bought into the Clinton rationale about “experience” because of her tenure as First Lady. For what it’s worth, as a New Yorker, I believe Clinton’s done an admirable job of constituent service in the senate. But on the broader issues of war and peace, bridging the gap between rich and poor and being a progressive advocate, Clinton’s record is under-whelming at best.

Otherwise the remaining field left me uncommitted. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Barack Obama are all compelling figures with many virtues as well as flawed agents of a corrupt political system. And yes that includes Edwards who despite his populist message is also not a white knight. None of them are.

I appreciate much of what Dennis Kucinich has to say, resent how he was denied access to a recent debate but never seriously considered supporting him. As a protest candidate Kucinich has contributed and I respect his supporters. But he was a failure as Mayor of Cleveland and would have as much chance winning a national election as I do of dating Scarlett Johansson.

If I were twenty again, I might find stuffing envelopes, canvassing and phone banking on Kucinich’s behalf the right way to go. But that doesn’t feel right this time. Rather I believe it imperative Democrats avoid the calamity of nominating Hillary Clinton and supporting a protest candidate won’t get that done.

Clinton’s original support of the Iraq war was a callous and cowardly act of political expediency. Her tepid ‘if I knew now what I knew then’ explanation regarding Iraq is neither believable nor acceptable. War and peace requires a different standard of leadership. Not calculating cynicism resulting in needless bloodshed.

In 2007, Clinton’s vote labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization for example was irresponsible at best. One can presume that as president the political fifty-yard line will be looked upon as the Holy Grail and doing right a secondary consideration. Senator Clinton has managed to achieve a rare political feat: she is both a polarizing figure and without a principled core.

As long as Clinton is regarded as a polarizing figure anyway, it boggles the mind why she refused to stand for something as senator. Clinton's had six years to put her prestige on the line for the working poor, human rights and a judicious foreign policy. Instead she only enabled the neo-cons and is now regarded favorably by the drug and pharmaceutical companies.

Whereas Bobby Kennedy became a tribune to the underclass as senator, Hillary Clinton positioned herself as a reassuring figure for corporate special interests. Tell me Senator Clinton has scheming to achieve centrist nirvana taken the edge off your polarization in any way? Clintonism undermines the progressive cause just when the center of political gravity is in our favor. Conservatism is sucking wind and we can’t allow this moment in history to be squandered by nominating another Clinton.

Edwards and Obama are the only Democratic candidates who have any chance of defeating Senator Clinton and prevailing in November. Hence, supporting any of the other candidates, regardless of their principles, personal virtues and credentials is a waste. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. I wish it were otherwise because the field beyond Clinton, Edwards and Obama is far more accomplished in my opinion. Unfortunately, our political system rewards style over substance. If I didn’t feel it so imperative to stop Hillary Clinton from getting the nomination I’d likely support Chris Dodd. But under the circumstances I’m left to choose between Obama and Edwards. There are positives in the biographies of both men.

Obama could have pursued a career as a corporate lawyer after Harvard Law School and dedicated himself to making money. Many in his position would’ve done exactly that. Instead he chose community activism. That impresses me.

As an Illinois state legislator, Obama skillfully navigated the complex web of race, entrenched power and ego that comprise Chicago politics to be an agent of pragmatic reform. It was there that Obama’s political persona was defined: he fights fire with water. That has translated into a presidential campaign of progressive advocacy with the soft rhetoric of unity.

In my blog writing I’ve occasionally referred to Obama as a “platitude machine” in frustration at his reluctance to forcefully indict the agents of corporatism and militarism that have plagued our country. Too often this year Obama appeared content to utter polite words about bringing everyone to the table under the mystical aura of bipartisanship.

Yet Obama has shown remarkable growth in recent weeks and found his voice. I am impressed at how he’s drawn distinctions without coming off as shrill. The fist in the velvet glove is a rare gift in politics and Obama seems to have it. He’s been especially effective at contrasting himself with Clinton’s institutional/machine oriented politics of restoration entitlement.

I also note that among Obama’s foreign policy advisors is former Bill Clinton National Security Advisor Tony Lake. Unlike other members of the Clinton Administration currently advising Senator Clinton, Lake opposed the war with Iraq from the beginning. And of course so did Obama himself.

For a time I was ready to jump on Obama’s bandwagon, excited at the prospect of his potential for knocking off Hillary Clinton. Also, symbolism does indeed matter in politics and statecraft. A dark skinned president named Barack Hussein Obama, with part of his childhood spent in Indonesia and possessing Kenyan ancestry is powerful. Domestically the very idea of a President Obama is unifying for a nation sundered by race and baby boomer culture wars. Moreover, Obama’s international profile offers the promise of helping America return to the community of civilized nations. The temptation to support him is almost irresistible and I was nearly seduced by it.

America however needs far more than what Obama offers. Class warfare waged from the top has metastasized under the Bush Administration and must be forcefully reversed. Yes, water is usually the best antidote for fire. But this moment in history requires someone willing to make an omelet by breaking some eggs.

Politics is a fight and the quest for fairness in our current gilded age won’t be accomplished without a determined struggle. Edwards as we all know rose from humble beginnings to take on predatory corporations in the courtroom and he won big. Whenever Republicans talk about tort reform it's code, to prevent advocates such as John Edwards from helping regular folks against entrenched corporate power. The fact Edwards earned a fortune at the expense of predatory corporations only angers the predatory conservative establishment even more. Remember the plutocracy considered FDR a traitor to his class too.

As previously noted, Edwards is not a white knight. For much of 2007 I leaned toward Edwards but his original support of the Iraq War and dabbling in hedge funds bothered me. Was his apology for originally supporting it genuine or merely politically expedient? How can any of us really know? Politicians have a nasty habit of being chameleons as it suits them.

Yet even as politicians pander to win over a public more interested in Hollywood scandal then global warming, it is possible to identify a core in some of these people. Al Gore for example, was a tactile politician who could shift with the prevailing winds but believed and worked for reversing global warming before it was popular. And John Edwards has spent much of his adult life standing up for ordinary people against predatory corporate power. This is a man who remembers where he came from.

Some consider the John Edwards message one of anger and prefer the soothing rhetoric of Obama. I find the Edwards message empowering. As Paul Krugman wrote in today’s New York Times,
“There’s a fantasy, widely held inside the Beltway that men and women of good will from both parties can be brought together to hammer out bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems.”
As we saw six years ago, even with no mandate, predatory conservatives had no interest in sensible bipartisan solutions. Instead they shamelessly exploited the symbols of patriotism and war to finance crony capitalism at the expense of consumers, small business owners and the very old and young. One can’t negotiate power with these people. Power must be taken from them. For the first time in a generation we have a window to facilitate a true progressive reformation if we’re willing to fight for it. We negotiate when we’re cutting our losses. We fight when we have hope. This blogger is opting for the audacity of hope and supporting John Edwards.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto and Sergei Kirov

My first thought after learning about Benazir Bhutto’s assassination today was Sergei Kirov. On December 1, 1934, the Leningrad Communist Party boss, Sergei Kirov was murdered. Kirov, was a prominent Bolshevik and popular within the party. Josef Stalin, perhaps the most evil and paranoid leader in history, perceived Kirov as a threat to his rule.

Stalin had valid reasons for fearing Kirov who benefited from much support during the 1934 Communist Party Congress when he was elevated to a position on the Central Committee. It’s possible that Stalin asked Kirov to work for him in Moscow in order to undermine his emerging political clout. Kirov turned Stalin down, perhaps to retain his independent power base in Lenigrad and on the Central Committee. Another factor that made Kirov a threat was nationality. Stalin was a Georgian while the ruggedly handsome Kirov an ethnic Russian. So Stalin used the NKVD to have Kirov murdered. He then ingeniously exploited Kirov’s murder as a pre-text for the Great Purges to defend the Soviet state against “saboteurs” and “Trotskyites.”

I don’t know who was behind former Pakistani Prime Minister Bhutto’s murder. Perhaps it truly was an act of terrorism by al Quaeda. It nevertheless is difficult not to suspect that Pakistan’s intelligence services opposed to any democratic reforms she might have implemented, wanted Bhutto out of the way and allowed assassins to get too close. For damn sure it provides Pakistan's President Musharaff, a pre-text for subverting the democracy Bhutto hoped to build. Her murder is also expedient for the Bush Administration and provides the neocons a pre-text for another cycle of fear mongering.

Hopefully, Bhutto’s martyrdom will have more success thwarting both the agents of reaction within the Pakistani government as well Islamic terrorists than she did in life. As a Muslim woman committed to democracy, Bhutto represented a beacon of light in a world of secular autocrats and religious radicals. Alas, her death represents a victory for the forces of darkness in a world spiraling out of control.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Is 2008 the Year Democrats Finally Realize Iraq Is An Occupation?


In 2007, the Democratic Party was a self-gelding machine of ineptitude. Activists such as myself worked feverishly in 2006 to retake congress and end America’s occupation of Iraq. Instead the Bush Administration implemented a “surge” as Democrats retreated from flexing their constitutional muscle. They continued to fund military operations, never invoked the War Powers Act and impeachment was taken off the table.

Remarkable considering how unpopular both the Iraq occupation and President Bush had become. Cracks even appeared in the façade of GOP unity as their Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell warned the Bush Administration that congressional Republicans would not allow Iraq to harm their electoral prospects in 2008. Indeed, on June 26th the Washington Post quoted McConnell as saying,
“I anticipate that we'll probably be going in a different direction in some way in Iraq. And it'll be interesting to see what the administration chooses to do."
McConell was anticipating the September testimony of Army General David H. Petraues. Yet as 2007 ends there is no denying that the unpopular Bush Administration successfully thwarted both the Democratic majority and the will of the people. How did this happen?

One can offer all sorts of explanations. Among them is that sixty-votes are required in the Senate and a thin Democratic majority had no real shot of making a difference. Others may prefer to scapegoat for their controversial “Betray Us” advertisement prior to the testimony of the highly decorated General Petraeus. Finally, some may simply contend that the surge worked and the rationale for withdrawal no longer applies.

Personally, I believe Democrats never truly wanted to end our occupation in Iraq. Iraq had sapped Bush’s popularity into oblivion, debased the Republican brand and helped fill Democratic coffers. Hence, both Reid and Pelosi were content to pursue the politics of symbolism without truly forcing the Administration’s hand.

Casting symbolic votes about timetables appeared safe and had the added advantage of keeping congressional Republicans on the defensive for supporting an unpopular war. It seemed a sure way to enhance their congressional majority as well as retake the White House but changed nothing on the ground. As a result, 2007 ends with congressional Democrats appearing impotent and unprincipled. Is it any wonder their poll ratings are so low?

Tragically, Democrats failed to realize that the American public opposed the war because we were perceived as losing rather than believing toppling Saddam’s government was wrong. Furthermore, even Americans who opposed the war from the beginning are instinctively repulsed at the notion of “losing” a war. Culturally, Americans don’t accept losing a war gracefully. Most countries don’t. For example, the Vietnam War was unpopular at the end yet liberals were easily stigmatized as weak defeatists for opposing it. Hence, once the so-called surge helped establish superficial conditions of stability, casting symbolic votes about withdrawal deadlines ceased to be effective.

It is therefore imperative that in 2008 Democrats stop referring to Iraq as a war but an occupation instead. The war in Iraq was both ill conceived and immoral. Many citizens including myself took to the streets and protested in 2002-2003. We didn’t protest because we feared losing. Rather we didn’t accept the rationale for the war and feared the occupation to follow.

The war as we all know ended when President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished.” Saddam’s regime was easily toppled and weapons of mass destruction were never found. The military did its job. The war was wrong but it happened and we won. We have been sustaining a brutal occupation since its conclusion. Occupations typically result in the wholesale deaths and torture of civilians. Maintaining an occupation is corrupting to the “victor.” Numerous people including bloggers and thinkers far more intelligent and eloquent than myself already reached that conclusion and the folly of buying into Bush’s framing the Iraq debate as a “war.”

As George Lakoff wrote on July 5, 2006,
“In an occupation, there are pragmatic issues: Are we welcome? Are we doing the Iraqis more harm than good? How badly are we being hurt? The question is not whether to withdraw, but when and how? What to say? You might prefer ‘End the occupation now’ or ‘End the occupation by the end of the year’ or ‘End the occupation within a year,’ but certainly Congress and most Americans should be able to agree on ‘End the occupation soon.’ In an occupation, not a war, should the president still have war powers? How, if at all, is the Supreme Court decision on military tribunals at Guantanamo affected if we are in an occupation, not a war? What high-handed actions by the President, if any, are ruled out if we are no longer at war?”
If Democrats at long last get their heads out of their ass the “surge” can be looked upon in its appropriate context. Yes, the surge reduced deaths of American GIs. Tactically it’s been a success. To deny that is to ignore reality. Even more significant are the Iraqi Sunnis resisting al Quaeda themselves. But what does any of that have to do with ending America’s immoral occupation, facilitating a political settlement inside Iraq and earning a measure of diplomatic good will in the Muslim world? As long as this occupation has a white Christian face we’ve condemned ourselves to walking on a toxic treadmill. The occupation is not beneficial to America or Iraq.

On December 4th, I interviewed talk radio’s Thom Hartmann, about his new book Cracking The Code: How To Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America's Original Vision. Hartmann eloquently echoes Lakoff about framing Iraq as an occupation instead of a war in his book. He noted during our interview that immediately after he and Lakoff suggested the “occupation” frame in 2006, Democrats took their advice. But they soon reverted to talking about Iraq as a war. Hartmann further observed that the corporatist media finds the war frame too profitable. Writing and broadcasting about an “occupation” doesn’t sell as well or profit companies such as General Electric who have a financial stake in the media as well as military operations. The media is not going to describe Iraq as an occupation any time soon.

So it’s up to the reality based community of citizen journalists, bloggers, activists and just plain regular people to set the record straight. Many progressive bloggers reading this thread properly realized this long ago. But as we head into 2008 a reminder is in order. I for one plead guilty of too often playing into the hands of predatory conservatives and describing Iraq as a war.

So no matter what presidential candidate you’re supporting in 2008, please let their campaigns know you want Iraqi policy referred to as an “occupation” and be assertive about it. Please telephone and write your representatives in congress as well (click here and here ). And on your blogs refer to Iraq as an occupation every time you post about it. Any street protests should also reinforce the message that we're opposing an occupation. Our 2008 New Years resolution should be to once and for all shift the terms of debate about Iraq from being a “war” to an “occupation.” At stake is the blood of our GIs, innocent Iraqi civilians and ending America’s estrangement from the civilized world.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Soul of the GOP

As longtime readers of The Onion or viewers of the Daily Show can attest, comedy often reveals truth far more effectively than the so-called news as presented by the corporatist media. This hilarious parody of a Mike Huckabee campaign commercial on You Tube illustrates just how vile and toxic the Republican Party truly is.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Inside Track: Off the Warpath?

Barbara Slavin, a guest writer here at the Intrepid Liberal Journal, just published an important article in the National Interest entitled "Inside Track: Off the Warpath?" Both the National Interest and Barbara Slavin have graciously granted their permission for her article to be posted here.

Barbara Slavin is a senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today on leave as a Jennings Randolph fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation. I interviewed Barbara Slavin about her book and U.S./Iranian relations on October 21st. You can listen to that interview by clicking here.

The smiles on the faces of several U.S. military personnel at a previously scheduled Washington think tank session on Iran’s “bomb” said it all Tuesday: The United States is not going to start a third Middle East war anytime soon.

Monday’s new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stating “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” dropped the big one on those in Washington and elsewhere who have been urging the Bush Administration to strike Iran “before it is too late.”

Despite President Bush’s efforts at his press conference to act as though nothing has changed, everything has. Chuck Frelich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, called the news “an earthquake” that “gives us more time to explore the diplomatic route.” The Nixon Center’s Geoffrey Kemp, appearing on the same panel at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed. The NIE “changes the political dynamics in this town”, he said. “The out of the blue pre-emptive strike . . . is a long way off.”

There are still many questions about the new estimate and its origins. The intelligence community, in its eagerness not to promise another “slam dunk”, may have erred on the side of caution. Iran has accelerated its overt enrichment program since 2005 and could produce enough fissile material for a bomb in as little as two years, more plausibly by 2015, the estimate said.

But a key conclusion of the NIE is that a negotiated solution is possible. Iran, it turns out, is not a nation of mad mullahs but a country whose “decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach.” Its leaders are susceptible to pressure and worried about Iran’s international posture. Iran shut down the weapons program in 2003 because it had been caught cheating and in a post-9/11 environment, was worried about the consequences. At the same time it started negotiations with Great Britain, France and Germany—negotiations that it thought would be quickly joined by the United States.

That did not happen. President Bush, at his news conference, misspoke when he said that the United States “facilitated” the European talks with Iran in 2003. In fact, then–under secretary of state John Bolton did nothing to help. He actively tried to sabotage the talks with leaks about threatening Iranian remarks to the Europeans. Bush also misspoke when he said that “at that point in time” (2003) his administration said it would stop blocking Iran’s application to join the World Trade Organization and provide spare parts for civilian airliners if Iran halted its program. Those carrots were not put on the table until 2005, shortly before Iranian presidential elections replaced Mohammad Khatami with the more belligerent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The United States did not offer to actually join the negotiations until May 2006—and only then if Iran suspended its uranium program.

Will Bush now pursue a diplomatic option more strenuously? New sanctions will be harder to achieve but it will be easier to justify talks with Tehran. At the very least, Bush will not bomb Iran before he leaves office. And that is something for which everyone around the world—not just the overstretched U.S. military—should be grateful.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

An Interview With Talk Radio's Code Breaker Thom Hartmann

From 1968 to 2004, conservatives utilized the art of communication to persuade voters into supporting policies against the interests of peace and their personal prosperity. While liberals advocated obscure abstractions and responded with cerebral nuance, conservatives prevailed by hitting people in their gut. Law and order, welfare Cadillac Queens, Willie Horton, death tax, permissiveness, the flag and God were all exploited to define liberals as weak elitist traitors and conservatives as upstanding guardians of American values.

Even the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did little to prevent the center of political gravity from shifting to the right. Consequently, a corporate plutocracy plundered the American economy at the expense of working people and small business owners, our civil liberties were systematically eroded and the neo-conservative empire culture shamefully eroded America’s moral authority and geopolitical position.

This trend metastasized in 2004 as Republican propagandists profiled John Kerry, a candidate with three purple hearts into a modern day Benedict Arnold and a flip-flopper. Following that election, liberals began absorbing the work of intellectuals such as George Lakoff and Michael Tomasky to better “frame” issues. Progress was made as Democrats captured congress in 2006 and the Republican brand is currently sucking wind.

Yet, it is quite apparent that more work needs to be done to advance the liberal cause. The Democratic congress has struggled to stand up for civil liberties, oppose our disastrous policies in Iraq and even prevent the confirmation of a pro-torture attorney general. Hence, liberals like myself still have much to learn about how to persuade people why progressive policies merit broad support.

Thom Hartmann, the premiere voice for progressive talk radio, breaks down the art and science of communication with his new book, Cracking The Code: How To Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Vision (Berrett-Kohler). Drawing on his extensive experience as a psychotherapist, advertising executive, and host of a national talk radio show, Hartmann shares the tools to become conscious about the ways people think, sort and understand the world. More importantly, Hartmann illustrates how to successfully communicate progressive values.

Hartmann’s daily progressive radio talk show, has been going strong for five years and replaced Al Franken on the Air America Radio Network. It is also distributed to radio stations nationwide on the Jones Satellite system, and boasts more live daily listeners than any other progressive talk radio show.

Hartmann agreed to a telephone interview with me about his latest book and the art of political communication. Our conversation is just over forty-four minutes. Please refer to the media player below. This interview can also be accessed for free via the Itunes Store by searching for “Intrepid Liberal Journal.”

This interview is Hartmann’s second appearance on Intrepid Liberal Journal podcasts. Last year he spoke to readers/listeners of the Intrepid Liberal Journal about his book, Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class.