Monday, July 28, 2014

In Defense of Cutler (Sort of...)

Eliot Cutler. Photo from the Bangor Daily News.

Maine independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler should not drop out of the race. Frankly, I find all calls for him to do so--primarily coming from the Maine Democratic Party and liberal voters--highly anti-democratic.

A recent MPBN report on the candidates'  campaign finances ("Viability of Cutler Campaign Questioned in Wake of Finance Reports," 7/23/2014), finds Cutler trailing Republican incumbent Paul LePage, and Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, with only $527,000 on hand. Michaud, meanwhile, is leading with more than $1 million, with LePage following close behind, with a little more than $900,000, according to the report.

The independently-wealthy Cutler is largely self-financing his campaign--a fact MPBN reporter, A.J. Higgins makes the focus of the story. In the warped logic of our money-driven political system, Higgins and other local media pundits are using Cutler's comparative lack of campaign cash to further justify calls for him to drop out of the three-way race.

Higgins goes on to raise fears that Cutler will "take away votes," from Michaud (as if the latter candidate is somehow entitled to them) and, thus, "spoil" the governor's race. This accusatory word, "spoiler," holds a unique place in the U.S. political lexicon in that it applies exclusively to third-party candidates. It is the same asinine, discriminatory accusation Democrats continue to hold over Ralph Nader for allegedly "costing" Al Gore the 2000 presidential election.

The truth, of course, is that Gore won that election. It was the conservative-led Supreme Court, in refusing to allow the Florida vote recount to continue, that essentially anointed George W. Bush president.

But, as is often the case in the contemporary world of corporate politics, if voters are fed a false talking-point enough times, most of them come to accept it as true. Besides, why blame the real culprits for a stolen presidential election when you can just blame the long-admired consumer advocate who just happens to be the only candidate talking about corporate crime and single-payer health care?

Thus, this notion that third-party challengers to the corporate two-party duopoly are "spoilers" for the "real" candidate (i.e. the Democrat) persists in the minds' of voters and has carried over to the state-level. As a result, the rage--and that is the only accurate word to describe it--that Maine Democrats display toward Cutler is not much different from that which they hold for Nader.

Cutler, to his credit, says he is giving "zero thought--maybe less than zero, if that's possible--to getting out of this race." He notes, likewise, he has been forced to largely fund his own campaign given how severely Maine's election laws are stacked against third-party and independent candidates. Those same laws are the reason why the Maine Green Party is not running a gubernatorial candidate this year.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am not a Cutler supporter.

In fact, I find Cutler, overall, to be only slightly less conservative than LePage. He supports charter schools and merit-based-pay for teachers. He is anti-union. He talks of "reforming" welfare. His previous career as a corporate lobbyist and his general ties to business are worrisome. And, in his previous bid for governor in 2010, both Cutler and LePage cited New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a politician they admire.

In fact, Cutler is not all that different from Sen. Angus King: Socially liberal (i.e. they don't hate gays and minorities) and fiscally conservative. But, like King, Cutler does not challenge the fundamental workings of the economy, foreign policy or capitalism. Though both claim to be "Independent," each would fit right in with either the Democrats or the Republicans. (In fact, King may be headed to the GOP himself come November, depending on which way the political winds blow.)

As such, neither King nor Cutler are truly good examples of third-party candidates, which traditionally have operated outside both the two-party structure, and its corporatist ideology.  

That said, Cutler is by all indications not as extreme as LePage. He is clearly an intelligent, articulate adult, unlike the bullish, tantrum-inclined man-child currently representing the state. I do not think we would need to worry about a Gov. Cutler telling the NAACP to "kiss my butt," or making vulgar jokes about Vaseline to his opponents.

But I prefer to stick to the issues. Character traits and personality differences are best left to the cable-news networks to quibble over. While Cutler--and Michaud, for that matter--may not be as openly rude and hostile to the poor, welfare recipients or the unemployed as LePage has been, the two of them would pursue the same corporatist policies.

To that end, it is largely irrelevant who is elected governor in November. Strange as it is to be quoting George Will, the conservative syndicated columnist was correct when he claimed, in 2008, that elections are not about "whether elites shall rule, but which elite."

So, why am I standing up for Eliot Cutler if I do not even really support him, you ask? Because, unlike most liberals, I believe in every candidate's constitutional right to run for office--whether or not I agree with them ideologically. That is kinda the whole point of free speech, in fact.

Beyond that, I have this crazy idea that more candidates--and, thus, a wider range of discussion, debate, and choice--is actually a good thing for democracy. And why stop with just three candidates? I would like to see four, five, six...hell, ten, 15 or even 25 candidates from different parties on the ballot. Indeed, the U.S. remains stubbornly antiquated as the only industrialized democracy in the world that restricts its political choices to two parties. The fact that those two parties have become virtually indistinguishable in recent decades does not help matters.

If we utilized a ranked-choice or instant runoff voting system as many other countries do, not only would it create more room for a wider diversity of candidates, it would also negate the absurd "spoiler" argument as it would level the political playing-field. Such a system is not as "impossible" to achieve as one may think. Portland already elects its mayor via a ranked-choice ballot. Why not merely expand the procedure to Maine's statewide and Legislative elections?

Maine Democrats are, naturally, not too enthused about this idea. When I contacted Maine Speaker of the House Mark Eves earlier this year about the issue of ranked-choice voting, his assistant was adamant it is not something his party intends to pursue. In fact, the minute I said the words, "ranked-choice" she began yelling, "No! No! No!"

Adopting a ranked-choice voting system, Eves's spokesperson told me, would "ultimately be up to the people."

"But," she added, "it would never work if you didn't have a viable candidate."

Ummm... OK...

Whether the people the Speaker has answering the phones truly understand how ranked-choice voting works or have simply been instructed to stick to tired talking points of "viable" candidates, is not entirely clear.

I had a much less hostile--albeit briefer--conversation with Michaud's Communications Coordinator, Lizzy Reinholt. While she assured me Michaud, as governor, would remain invested in "opening Maine's electoral system to Democrats, Republicans, and Independents," restructuring the state's election system is, nonetheless, something he would approach with caution. Reinholt said Michaud would be particularly concerned about "the price-tag" such a restructuring would entail. She repeatedly stated such a "conversation" about IRV would have to be "serious," as if suggesting there is something inherently "non-serious" about the subject.

Clearly, the biggest hurdle to any sort of electoral reform in Maine--or nationally--is the Democratic Party.

This is ironic, given that it was the Dems' own candidate, milquetoast Libby Mitchell, who "spoiled" the race--to use their own word--in 2010 and got LePage elected in the first place. She received 19 percent of the vote. All the accusations that Cutler is "washed-up," and "incompetent" ignore the fact that he came within 200 votes of becoming governor.

Here is the takeaway: If Michaud is threatened by Cutler's campaign, the solution is not to disparage, demean, and otherwise denounce him into dropping out of the race. Rather, it means Michaud has to work all that much harder to convince voters that he--and not Cutler--is truly the best person to represent Maine.

But the Democrats are not interested in hard work. They think they are entitled to government office simply by virtue of being an Establishment party. Case in point is Nation reporter and standard-bearer liberal, Eric Alterman. In the Nader documentary, An Unreasonable Man, he derides third-party voters as "stupid," and "people who know nothing about politics."

But until we truly open our electoral system to a range of candidates and parties, I tip my hat to anybody who attempts to challenge that Establishment.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

World War II: Not so Good After All

One of the results of becoming politically conscious is you come to realize 95 percent of what you were taught in history class is simply not true. Columbus did not actually discover America; Abraham Lincoln's allegedly singular role in "ending slavery" is considerably overblown; the Founding Fathers were largely uninterested in democracy; and World War II was hardly the "good war."

Of course, this last one presupposes that any war can be considered "good," "great" or otherwise just. Certainly, there may be times in human history when a nation must resort to military force to defend itself from an invading country that cannot be reasoned with or appeased.

But once you start labeling certain wars with superlative adjectives (World War I & II, The Civil War, The Revolutionary War), it creates a false concept that some forms of mass slaughter are, ultimately, acceptable. The so-called "bad" wars, meanwhile (Vietnam, the Iraq War, Granada, Haiti, Cuba, the Spanish-American War, to name just a few), were not, we are told, so much "wrong" or "immoral" in terms of their justifications. ("We meant well...") These wars were fought for the "right reasons," the wars' architects assure us. They were just poorly executed.

World War II, more so than any other major military conflict, has taken on mythic status in American culture. Acclaimed movies like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, and Flags of Our Fathers along with realistic (and disturbingly popular) video games like Call of Duty have further reinforced WWII's celebrated status.

Bruce Russett, professor of political science at Yale, sums up the war's unassailable status. "Participation in the war against Hitler remains almost wholly sacrosanct, nearly in the realm of theology," he writes.

Whatever criticisms of twentieth-century American policy are put forth, United States participation in World War II remains almost entirely immune. According to our national mythology, that was a "good war," one of the few for which the benefits clearly outweighed the costs. 

Case in point is the Brick Store Museum in my hometown of Kennebunk. The museum's featured exhibit of the summer is called "Vitamin V: How Food Fought the Second World War." In addition to the exhibit itself, local singer/songwriter, Monica Grabin performed a set of shows at the museum featuring folk songs from the two respective world wars.

Grabin--a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who boasts on her website of having Democratic Maine State Rep. Emily Cain join her on-stage to sing a song last year--regularly performs these sorts of "historical" folk shows. While there is certainly no debating Grabin's talent and musical prowess, her musical history lessons are not altogether different from your high school teacher's. Hers is more a sort of "pop" history, not unlike what one might find on The History Channel. She reinforces all the commonly believed myths surrounding WWI and II, while leaving the very notion of the moral legitimacy of these wars as less than an afterthought.

"But wasn't World War II fought for all the right reasons?" you ask. "Weren't we fighting to save democracy from fascism? Besides, wasn't Hitler just innately evil?"

Certainly, I am not suggesting the U.S. should have remained passive while hundreds of thousands of innocents were sent to death camps. And, while I am not a fan of labeling any human being as necessarily "evil"--or for that matter, especially "good"--there is no denying Hitler and the Nazis' acts were indisputably heinous.

That said, it is no great breach of morality--and certainly not a form of "anti-Semitism" as some may reactively suggest--to question the motives behind U.S. involvement in the so-called "good war."

Indeed, it is difficult to make the case America was fighting for any sort of moral high-ground in WWII (i.e. to "save the Jews") when it deliberately kept half of its own citizens--African Americans--segregated, cut-off from mainstream white society, and otherwise politically, economically, and socially disempowered.

As historian Howard Zinn writes in A People's History of the United States, "...blacks, looking at anti-Semitism in Germany, might not see their own situation in the U.S. as much different" (p. 409).

Ironically, black Americans who did enlist to fight overseas found themselves fully segregated from the white soldiers throughout their training and deployment. And this is to say nothing of the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans at home.

Hmmm... I wonder how many songs Grabin sang about these racist double-standards?

The fact is, in 1939 while Hitler was rapidly conquering parts of Europe,  Americans were in no rush to enter a second world war. Not only had the devastating economic impacts of the Great Depression generated a strong sense of isolationism among Americans. But they also created a widespread--and conveniently ignored in high school history textbooks--feeling that capitalism had utterly failed.

While Roosevelt's New Deal programs helped stave off this attitude, American involvement in WWII was the real clincher. It was, to put it bluntly, a war to save capitalism. Saving the Jews, protecting democracy, defeating fascism--all of these concerns were secondary to maintaining Western capitalism and ensuring the United States' global supremacy.

As Leon Trotsky observed at the dawn of WWII:

The present war--the second imperialist war--is not an accident; it does not result from the will of this or that dictator. It was predicted long ago. It derived its origin inexorably from the contradiction of international capitalist interest.... The United States must "organize" the world. History is bringing humanity face to face with the volcanic eruption of American Imperialism.

Indeed, after the war, only two nations emerged as the indisputable super-powers of the globe: The United States and the Soviet Union. Less than 50 years later, the latter country ceased to exist, leaving America as the world's sole military and corporate empire.

The post-war era also marked a profound change in America's very identity, as the country shifted from a production-based economy, to one centered on consumption. Public relations pioneers, Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann utilized Sigmund Freud's controversial theories of psychoanalysis to manipulate public opinion, creating false needs and desires that could only be appeased through material consumption, and otherwise "manufacture consent," to use Lippmann's term. The very role of the individual dramatically changed during this time from one of citizen to consumer.

Indeed, one could argue all the various crises that currently plague our democracy--the dominating role of the corporate state; the legal pretense of corporations as "people"; the corroding influence of money in politics; the death of the liberal class and with it, the Democratic Party; the rise of the military-industrial-complex; the overconsumption that is ravaging the planet; the climate crisis, etc--were set in motion during the post-WWII years.

And here I thought we won the war. Seems more like a victory for the corporate state than the American people, if you ask me.

Finally, even if one concedes that World War II was "inevitable," that war with the Nazis was simply "unavoidable," nothing Hitler's armies did justified what was arguably the conflict's most egregious war crime: The use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

All historical evidence suggests the U.S. would have easily defeated Japan without the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, Japan was on the verge of surrendering before the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, on Aug. 6, 1945. And the U.S. was well aware of Japan's impending surrender since they had, by that time, cracked their communication codes.

No, America's use of the first nuclear weapon was less about defeating Japan than about demonstrating military supremacy to the world--to the Russians, especially. As a result, some 100,000 Japanese were horribly killed. Thousands more slowly died from radiation poisoning.

We study history in order to learn from the mistakes of the past, so that they may not be repeated in the future. But how are we to truly learn from the past when so much of what we think we know about it amounts to propaganda, distortion, and outright lies?

More importantly, we need to move beyond this childish concept that some wars are "good,"--even "noble" or "desirable." War is always a choice. Often the choice to go to war is not made by the American people themselves, but by a small, zealous cabal of corporatists fighting for profits, interests and motivations that have no impact on the rest of us. But war is a choice, nonetheless. And it is rarely a wise one.

"War is by definition," said Zinn during a speech titled "Three Holy Wars," "the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends which are uncertain.... The means are horrible, certainly. The ends, uncertain."

Monday, July 7, 2014

Capitalism and its Liberal Apologists

French economist, Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Sinclair Lewis, in his 1920 satirical novel, Main Street, uses the characters of Vida and Carol to illustrate the difference between liberals and radicals. Lewis, a socialist and fierce critic of the dehumanizing effects of Industrialization, wrote the novel as a scathing send-up of conservative small-town America.

Carol Kennicott, the novel's rebellious, free-spirited protagonist, moves with her more conventionally-minded husband from the city to the rural country town of Gopher Prairie, a fictional town modeled after Lewis's own hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Much of the novel's loosely-structured plot focuses on Carol's inept, at times perhaps naive, attempts to influence the uncultured, smug conservatism of Gopher Prairie with her progressive, feminist beliefs.

Ironically, Carol finds the greatest impediment to her efforts to "modernize" the town come, not from its conservative, middle-class residents, but from comfortable, unimaginative liberals like Vida. Vida criticizes Carol for trying to "work outside" the system with "foreign ideas."

The narrator explains:

Vida was, and always would be, a reformer, a liberal. She believed that things could be excitingly altered, but that things-in-general were comely and kind and immutable. Carol was...a revolutionist, a radical, and therefore possessed of "constructive ideas," which only the destroyer can have, since the reformer believes that all the essential constructing has already been done.

This, according to Lewis, is what separates liberals from radicals. Liberals--as currently embodied by the Democratic Party--prefer to tinker around the edges, while leaving the overarching structures of society (capitalism, corporate power, wealth inequality, class-struggle, etc.) intact.

Indeed, throughout history, it has always been the socialists, anarchists, communists, labor activists, anti-war protesters, radicals and revolutionaries, that have brought about fundamental democratic change in America.

Liberals in power merely adopt, co-opt, and water-down these ideas. Then they implement the second-rate versions and claim all the credit. (See: The Affordable Care Act as substitute for universal health care.) Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, unemployment, the five-day, 40-hour work week, child labor laws, free public education--all of these hallmarks of modern democratic society were born from the radical ranks of the Left. It was only through fierce, bloody, violent struggle that any of them were ever adopted by the power elite.

A popular bumper-sticker, erroneously attributing the development of earned-income benefits to Democrats, has it backwards. It should read: "Got Social Security? Thank a Socialist."

As the late Peter Camejo, Ralph Nader's 2004 vice presidential running-mate observes in the documentary film, An Unreasonable Man,

Every major progressive law in the United States--whether it's the right of women to vote, Social Security, rights of the labor party... Never [did] any of these major proposals come out of the two parties. They always came from the grassroots, from the people. And there were people who led those struggles who were independent and not functioning as agents of these two parties who were always called names and suffered personal abuses...

Which brings me to capitalism's latest liberal apologist, Thomas Piketty.

Piketty's bestselling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a rarity in the publishing industry. A tome of economic theory, replete with intricately designed graphs, and nearly 100 pages of footnotes, it is, suffice to say, not the sort of book Americans are typically clamoring to read--especially in the summertime. Yet the book has spent 12 weeks on the New York Times's bestseller list.

Clearly, the book's success illustrates Americans' increasing impatience with the sour economy, their lack of faith in so-called "free-market" economics--perhaps even in the institution of capitalism itself. To wit, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, 49 percent of young Americans ages 18-29 have a much more favorable view of socialism than older respondents.

Yet the title of Piketty's book--a seeming nod to Karl Marx's similarly lengthy 1867 treatise, Capital or Das Kapital in its original German--presents a bit of false advertising. Not only does Piketty's book have precious little in common with its titular forebear (the book actually has nothing to do with the nature and social role of capital; its primary focus is income inequality), Piketty himself claims to have never read Marx's work.

Here is the takeaway: Piketty takes 577 pages to arrive at the conclusion that, contrary to the claims of both conservatives and liberals, "free-market" capitalism does not evenly spread the wealth around. There is no "trickle-down" effect where the massive wealth of the exalted "job creators" magically flows down to the middle and working classes.

But this is hardly news to most of us on the Left. In fact, I think it is safe to assume anyone who is reading this blog long ago arrived at the same conclusion. Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, and Paul Krugman have been saying more or less the same thing for the last decade or more.

And therein lies the difference between Marx, Piketty, and the aforementioned economists. Marx's writings were driven by an urge to fundamentally change society by abolishing capitalism in favor of a more equitable system--Communism, specifically. Piketty, on the other hand, merely wants to "fix" capitalism's unequal distribution--to make it "work for everyone," so to speak.

Yet, as Marx correctly observes in Capital, capitalism's unequal distribution of wealth is not something that can be fixed. It is not a flaw in the system. It is, rather, the inevitable result of an inherently exploitative, unequal system that favors the wealthy owner-class over the working-class.

"The philosophers of our time have merely interpreted the world," Marx wrote. "The goal, however, is to change it."

This is not to say there is no value in Piketty's Capital. The writing is fairly straightforward and accessible, and he deserves credit for his persuasive research. But throughout the book Piketty remains the stereotypical "objective" academic, going to pains to give equal weight to "both sides" of the income inequality debate.

This bogus concept that professors and journalists should not have their own beliefs and opinions on what they write about is the great disease of both professions. It has rendered the universities and the press incapable of taking moral stands, of pointing out society's ills, and giving voice to the disenfranchised. Howard Zinn was correct: You cannot be neutral on a moving train.

We cannot afford to tinker around the edges of the corporate state. We need a complete system overhaul. And liberal reformists will not help us achieve it.

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