Friday, March 18, 2011

It's common wisdom

Updated I haven't posted anything for a week now, but not for lack of trying. I have worked on this post literally for hours, rewriting it, reconstructing it, re-focusing it, each time finding it did not say what I meant or said what I meant but in such a garbled way as to be unintelligible, or it did not flow or it was too broad or too narrow or too something.

It's thus a good example of why I haven't written much lately: Every time I try I find myself at risk of being consumed by an inchoate rage that corrodes my self-control and leaves me quite literally wanting to scream out loud in frustrated fury. When I write I try, even when I am in full rant mode I try, to maintain a certain control, a certain rationality, a certain coherence, the better, I think, to give the words more power simply by virtue of a certain degree of rigor which that very control suggests.

Now, lord knows there is enough wrong with this country and its heritage - but dammit, there are some good things in that heritage, too. We have done much evil as a nation, but we have also done some good. There are ideals that we fail to live up to, fail on a daily basis, but they at least are there to strive for. There are rights and freedoms, the privileges and immunities of citizenship, that too often have been violated and transgressed, but they have survived and even in some ways - although it can be hard to see it at times - have been expanded over the course of our history.

But every day now, those ideals are under attack, those rights and freedoms are being shrunk and circumscribed, those privileges and immunities are being stripped away, shredded, discarded by people more interested in their personal perks and positions and their private power trips than in what we as a society are supposed to be, what we like to tell ourselves we are as a people and as a nation.

So right now I find that rigor, that control, hard to come by. Right now all I want to do is to screech and wail out a string of the vilest invectives I know, all directed at the foul, sleazy, lying, sub-human, grasping, cruel, utterly despicable, fascistic, goat-fuckers that surround us.

What we are seeing every day is sometimes done consciously and sometimes unconsciously (in the sense of being useful idiots), but still what we are seeing is a conspiracy against every notion of equality under the law. Against every notion of community responsibility. Against every notion of justice. Against every notion of decency and fairness.

What we are seeing, that is, is an unfolding pattern of betrayal of - no, that's not strong enough - we are seeing an unfolding pattern of treason against every decent part of our heritage as Americans.

The most obvious example because it's gotten the most attention, is Wisconsin, where Governor Walkalloveryou's assault on the rights of workers has generated mass opposition. But that's far from the only place such attacks are occurring. Writing in The Nation, Jane McAlevey notes that regressive, anti-worker (my description, not hers) so-called "right to work" laws already exist in 22 states and bills to create them have been filed in 12 more. A law essentially barring unions from being involved in election campaigns already exists in Alabama; bills to do the same have been introduced in four states and union organizers expect there will be a dozen more. Fifteen states are expected to see bills revoking prevailing wage laws.

An even more extreme measure - which, oddly to me, has gotten less attention - is Michigan Governor Rick Snidley's bill for "financial martial law," under which any municipality in the state, in the event of a "fiscal crisis" with a definition so vague that even healthy communities could be found to be in such a "crisis," can be put under the control of an "emergency financial manager" appointed by the governor who could on their own authority cancel contracts (including labor contracts), slash services, fire city employees, and even dismiss elected officials. Such a manager would, in effect, be the lord of the manor.

These drives against labor and against democracy itself are of a piece with the moves, now so common as to almost be a cliché, of cuts in both state and federal taxes on the rich and corporations matched with cuts in services for, and increased taxes on, everyone else, both being justified as economic necessities, the former for "growth," the latter for "reducing deficits." But it's important, indeed I think it's vital, to realize that this is not really about unions per se or about cutting aid to the poor per se. It goes far beyond that. It is, as I said last week, about power. But while that is the why of the attack, what I want to raise here is the what.

That what, the something that is under attack, is sometimes called The Commons. I'm using the term here in a somewhat broader sense than its more usual economic understanding of referring to shared resources; rather, I'm thinking of a philosophical Commons, a social Commons, of the idea of a public sphere wherein all can participate, all have a stake, all have a part - and all have some responsibility. That space of socially shared and mutual duty, of what is or at least by rights should be equally available to all.

It's true that that sense of The Commons has always been under attack from the elites of our society; indeed, that is likely true of the elites of any society, who tend to care neither for the idea of all having a stake nor for the idea of they themselves having responsibilities to others other than those self-imposed ones of noblesse oblige, the true purpose of which is to demonstrate that elite's superiority. But the intensity and range of the attack we are seeing now is nearly if not totally unprecedented here.

The on-going, decades-long, and largely successful campaign to turn "government" and "taxes" into words to be spat out with unrestrained contempt is being broadened into an attack on the very concept of a public, that is, a whole-community, economic sphere. Put another way, what is being rejected is the very idea, the very root idea, of an economic Commons where there exists, at least philosophically, at least hypothetically, a notion that society as a whole and every member therein is required to have some measure of concern to see to it not only that none are left utterly destitute but that none may be bereft of the means to improve their economic condition.

Just consider as a simple example to illustrate the point: How long ago was it that someone dismissing public school teachers as just overpaid part-timers whose workday ends at 2pm and who are just ripping off taxpayers would have been greeted with hoots of derision? But now such deliberately demonizing denunciations are common currency even as teacher tenure is under attack in five states and laws to allow for, in effect, the privatization of public schools have been filed in eleven. That latter fact in particular reveals what is important here, the true underlying objection here, the unspoken desire here: The problem for those making the attacks lies not in the word "school" or the word "teachers" but in the word "public." The problem lies in the fact that it is done through government, that it's nature is that of a whole-community undertaking.

It's hard to underestimate the importance, the potential impact, of this broadened target yet at the same time it's hard to make crystal clear what the change is. This is perhaps the best I can do right now: This goes beyond the idea of "limited" or "small" government, beyond the notion of arguing if government involvement in this or that is a good thing or not, beyond even arguing if government properly should be involved in this or that, to being an attack on the very legitimacy of the idea of government as existing to serve the commonweal, the very legitimacy of the idea of a government "of, by, and for the people," the very legitimacy of the concept of government as an instrument of "We the People." Indeed, on the very concept of "We the People" itself.

It is the farthest reaches of libertarian daydreaming, souped up and mainstreamed by the powerful voices that stand to gain while simultaneously stripped of the comforting classic libertarian fantasy that voluntary private charity will deal with all the have-nots, stripped of it because even that implies some sort of social responsibility on the part of the haves - and it is that concept of responsibility that is being denied.

That idea, that denial of an economic Commons, is marching in lockstep with a denial of a political Commons, with moves being undertaken to restrict participation in the political life to the nation, even to restrictions on the franchise itself, even to calls to alter the 14th Amendment to change the understanding of just who is a citizen. On that latter point, historian Glenn LaFantasie declared in Salon on Sunday that concern over this is misplaced, citing the difficulty of amending the Constitution. While it would be comforting to dismiss the talk of changing or even rescinding the 14th as just empty rhetoric "in the political heat of an election year," as LaFantasie says, it would be unwise: He himself reminds us that Mitch "Fishface" McConnell promised hearings on the matter and opened his piece by saying
I never once contemplated that I would ever hear any American ... suggest that the 14th Amendment should be rescinded.
Which is really the point here: It's not that such dreams will be immediately fulfilled, it's that what not long ago would have been thought proof of madness is now considered to be within the bounds of reasonable discussion. The baseline concept of who is a citizen is coming under fire. That fire may not be - may it never be - withering, but that doesn't change the fact that it's there.

In the case of attacks on the franchise, i.e., voting rights, I'm thinking here not so much of things like voter caging, which are often illegal and always sleazy, but rather on the increasing demands for increasingly specific forms of identification in order to be allowed to register and to vote. Some 27 states now require voters to present ID in order to cast a vote. (I do not regard casting a "provisional" ballot, which often winds up uncounted, as being able to vote.) In eight of those states, a photo ID is required. When the Supreme Court upheld Indiana's photo ID law in April 2008, it did so after oral arguments during which the Justices studiously avoided the 800-pound gorilla which Appeals Court had been forced to acknowledge, that "most people who don't have photo ID are low on the economic ladder" and the law would disproportionately affect the poor, the elderly, and the disabled.

Another group whose ability to vote is betting attacked is college students.
According to research by the Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN) and Campus Progress, in the past six years, seven states have enacted laws that disenfranchise students or make it more difficult for them to vote. This year, 18 additional states are considering similar laws....
In proposing a law to "tighten up the definition of a New Hampshire resident" in January, New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien decried what he claimed were "kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience.”

There is a clear and obvious immediate partisan interest behind these moves, as most of the groups most affected by such changes - the poor, minorities, youth - tend to skew Democratic, as even the Appeals Court openly acknowledged in the Indiana case. However, there is a broader point as well: While most notice of O'Brien's remark has focused on the "voting liberal" part, he also referred to "no life experience." Put another way, he was insisting that college students are just too young, too "inexperienced," to be trusted with the vote. It's not just that they vote "liberal," it's that they're young - and so, well, they just shouldn't vote. That type of voter should be discouraged, even hindered, from voting. More generally, there are certain types of people for who voting rights just aren't, in the eyes of the elite, as important as they are for others.

Writing at the Huffington Post last fall, Glenn Smith got it right. He was talking in partisan terms of attempts to influence elections by deterring certain voters, but he expressed the broader point:
In their narrow views, the right to vote belongs only to the "right" people -- that is, people that look like them, live in gated communities like they do, go to the same churches they do and follow whatever arbitrary and authoritarian rules are demanded of them.
And those people, those types of people, who can't be trusted to serve the will of the elites simply should not be allowed to vote at all. So it doesn't really matter if they are effectively disenfranchised by ID laws, because, the majority of the Appeal Court in the Indiana case found, for them the "benefits" of voting "are elusive." They just aren't important enough for concern.

At this point I have to note something extremely important, so pay close attention. While the attack on our economic Commons and these parts of our political Commons have been more - although by no means exclusively - connected with the right wing and the Republican Party than otherwise, we must always bear in mind the eternal fact that elites are not a matter of left and right but a matter of up and down. And another part of our political Commons is under unprecedented attack from those too many naively viewed as saviors.

To be specific, the Obama administration is, in the words of Mark Benjamin, writing in Time magazine about 10 days ago,
rapidly establishing a record as the most aggressive prosecutor of alleged government leakers in U.S. history. ...

If the Obama Administration were to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, it would be the sixth time the Administration has pressed charges against defendants suspected of leaking classified information. The government has only ever filed similar charges three times over the last 40 years.
This White House, which came into office pledging a new spirit of openness, has instead demonstrated that it is as egregiously obsessive about secrecy as any administration in memory, one that brooks no public disagreements. The O gang has aggressively and repeatedly employed the bogus "state secrets privilege" to shield government and in some cases corporate wrongdoing from prosecution and even just scrutiny. Despite some improvements from its first year, it still has a worse record on FOIA requests than any previous administration except - possibly - that of George Bush The Younger. Even in areas where the Obama administration can claim to be an improvement on openness, it came as the result of outside pressure and often came reluctantly after months or more of resistance and foot-dragging.

To make this clear, this is not to say that overall on "transparency" the Obama White House is worse than previous administrations - although in at least one way, pursuing whistleblowers, it clearly is - but that it is no better, that the prevailing pattern of, the trend toward a gradual increase in, over-classification, closed-door meetings, and "message control" that really means information control, continues.

So even as on the one hand our ability to act as part of the political Commons is being assaulted, on the other our ability to know, to obtain the information we need to act in the Commons, is likewise being restricted.

There is so much more to say on this, so much more to explore, but this is already much too long so I will make myself stop with two final, brief bits. One is to reiterate in a sentence what I have said here: What we are, what we have been, what we at our best can be, can become, as a people is under attack even as we are being stripped of the means to fight back, our economic and political Commons are being enclosed. It is, I confess it seems to me that yes it is, a dark time.

But the other bit is that still, somehow, I don't want to end on quite so baleful a note. Instead, I want to emphasize that while, again, the breadth of the attack on The Commons is perhaps unprecedented, the idea of such an attack is certainly not new - which is more encouraging than it sounds if you just bear in mind that we have made it through before and, I say again, have in some ways improved over the years. So yes, it is still a dark time - but we have seen such times and worse before (the Civil War, the days of child factory labor, the Palmer Raids, the Depression, McCarthyism, just to name those that immediately spring to mind) and we can survive and if we, to put a twist on Dylan Thomas, "rage, rage, against the dying of the light," we may yet find dawn rather than close of day. Don't give up and don't you dare let me make you give up. My woeful words are just not that important.

Updated just to say that if you read the earlier version, you might want to start from the beginning anyway because some things have been added, some paragraphs moved around, so forth and so on.


Daisy Deadhead said...

I linked you today, so your rant will get read by a bunch of old Deadheads, feminists and southern malcontents. Hope that's okay! :D

Lotus said...

They're among the best kinds of people. :-)

Marc McDonald said...

I've read that something like 60 to 70 percent of U.S. workers would join a union if they could. But they are fearful of organizing because they'll lose their jobs.

You know, Stalin's Russia was often condemned as a place ruled by fear.

And yet, are we really that different in today's America?

Americans are a scared people.

We're scared sh*tless.

We're afraid to speak out, much less organize.

And Stalin's Russia actually had one advantage over today's America. Back then, the people knew that the media was state-controlled and to take what they read with a grain of salt.

By contrast, a lot of Americans swallow everything they read in the corporate-controlled U.S. media. After all, we have the First Amendment. So we have a "free press" in this country, right?

Stalin himself couldn't have controlled the information flow more effectively than the Powers That Be do today in the U.S.

I myself started losing faith in "my" country when Reagan was first elected. And I completely lost faith during the GWB years.

Frankly, we need a new government. Not a new president. Not new politicians. Not a new party. Not "reform." But a whole new government.

Lotus said...

Marc -

Thanks, as always, for your comment.

My own crisis of confidence, if you will, came rather earlier: Chicago, 1968. Still, I do recall telling a "counter-inaugural" meeting in 1981 that Reagan constituted the ultimate victory of image over reality.

JM said...

Monbiot supports Nuke power now:


JM said...

this won't make you feel any better, but;

a canadian who used to love america said...

Hi LarryE

I'm a 66 year old Canadian and came to your blog via rumproast.

I'm a simple man,reasonably intelligent and well-read.

When I was young I wanted nothing more than to be an American. I wanted to be part of it all; the innovation,the excitement, the absolutely unlimited opportunity. It was beyond intoxicating.

But after Vietnam and Nixon and Iran-Contra and a thousand other examples of a total misunderstanding of what life was all about,I began to doubt

And now I have come to believe that America is the most dangerous nation in history and that American arrogance will eventually lead to our destruction.

The current worship of ignorance and superstition is unbelievable and there appears to be nothing that can stop it.

Your common wisdom post is brilliant, heartfelt and utterly futile.

We are fucked.


Lotus said...

JM -

Re Monbiot, I'm disappointed but not surprised. I've described him before as going out of his way to bend over backwards to find a way to say the anti-environmentalists have a point.

Here, he says Fukushima changed his mind about nukes and then gives a whole bunch of standard arguments, virtually none of which have a damned thing to do with Fukushima. That hints to me that he "changed his mind" some time ago (assuming it needed changing at all) but needed an excuse to say so, some "new development," and that no one in Japan has dropped dead of radiation poisoning provided the opening.

Lotus said...


Thanks ever so much for your comment and your kind words.

I was writing a response but it was getting kind of long and it occurred to me that it might make for a decent follow-up post so I moved it there. It will be up by end of day Wednesday.

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