Monday, October 27, 2014

Vote Nobody

George Will was right: Elections are not about "whether elites shall rule, but which elites shall rule."

The late Howard Zinn once remarked of the United States' stifling two-party duopoly, "If the gods had wanted us to vote they would have given us candidates."

Given the utter lack of any anti-corporate voices in Maine's upcoming congressional and gubernatorial races, I find myself agreeing more with Zinn's sentiment this year than any other election in recent memory.

Putting aside the broader question of the overall efficacy of electoral politics, these midterm elections are becoming increasingly frustrating for Greens, activists, socialists or anybody looking to defy the corporate state.

(The Maine Green Independent Party opted not to run a candidate for governor this year largely due to the ridiculously immense--and blatantly unconstitutional--ballot-access hurdles in place for third-party candidates.)

Sure, there is independent Eliot Cutler. But Cutler is about as "independent" as Maine U.S. Sen. Angus King.

Like King, Cutler is socially liberal (i.e. he does not hate gays and women) and fiscally conservative. I prefer to think of him as "GOP-lite": Not as extreme as Republican Gov. Paul LePage, but not particularly moderate, either.

A former corporate lobbyist who is largely self-financing his own campaign, Cutler talks of "branding" the state of Maine like a corporation. He supports tax reform, merit-based pay for teachers, eliminating--rather than reforming--government programs that are inefficient, and "reforming" welfare in a language reminiscent of Bill Clinton.

And, in his previous bid for governor in 2010, Cutler and LePage both cited New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a politician they admire.

In other words, Cutler is another Establishment politician. He would fit right in with either the Republican or Democratic parties--which makes sense, since he has been enrolled in both parties before going independent.

All of that said, I find the persistent calls for Cutler to drop out of the race highly antidemocratic. Even if I do not personally support his policies, Cutler has a constitutional right to run for public office. As voters, we should be encouraging more candidates to run for office. And we could do just that if Maine adopted a ranked-choice or instant run-off voting system for all statewide elections--just like Portland uses to elect the mayor.

However, Maine Democrats resist any calls to reform our antiquated winner-take-all electoral system. They likely realize that, if given a choice, progressive voters would abandon them in droves.

Then we have Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a candidate almost as bland and uninspiring as former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen.

Like Allen, Michaud's career in the House of Representatives has been colored by his rank-and-file party loyalty, his utter lack of leadership qualities, and a record that, above all, demonstrates a thorough refusal to rock the boat in even the slightest manner.

In a succession of flip-flops to rival John Kerry, Michaud was opposed to women's reproductive freedom before he was for it. During his first year in Congress, Michaud earned a ten percent rating from the leading women's advocacy group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of the worst ratings the group has ever given.

Now, the very same group has endorsed him for governor, praising Michaud's "evolution" on women's rights. "We know he'll be an excellent advocate for women," writes NARAL president Ilyse Hogue in an op-ed in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram ("Mike Michaud has earned pro-choice group's endorsement, abortion rights advocate says," 04/30/2014).

Likewise, Michaud opposed gay rights before he came out as gay himself, shortly after announcing his intent to run for governor last fall.

While in the Maine State Legislature, Michaud voted against gay rights legislation five times. But try bringing this up with Michaud's supporters and they promptly inform you he simply "changed his mind" on the issue. (Meanwhile, liberals like Bangor Daily News blogger, Alex Steed, argue, ludicrously, that Michaud's sudden about-face on gay rights is "off-limits" for straight people to criticize. Yes, he actually wrote this.)

Even in the lead-up to Maine's passage of gay marriage in 2012, Michaud remained completely silent on the issue. He could have, at the very least, expressed his support for the ballot measure. Doing so would not even have necessitated disclosing his own sexual orientation.

As obnoxious as LePage is, at least the man has principles and, in the eyes' of his supporters anyway, integrity. And that is, sadly, why he will likely be re-elected.

Finally, there is U.S. Senate hopeful, Shenna Bellows who is running an uphill contest against long-serving "moderate" Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Sure, Bellows is highly unlikely to win. But let's put that pesky fact aside for the moment.

On paper, Bellows looks great. She supports single-payer health care, legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage, and equal pay for women. Likewise, she has been a fierce critic of the NSA surveillance state and has been vocal in her opposition to the Iraq war. (She has, however, remained mum on the six or so other wars the U.S. is currently involved in...)

Yet, while Bellows has clearly staked out a populist campaign (and there is no debate that Collins has long overstayed her welcome in Washington, D.C.), she, like 2012 Senate hopeful, Cynthia Dill, is something of a sacrificial lamb for the Democrats--put up more for show than as a serious contender. Readers may recall that Dill, who was vying for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Olympia Snowe, received virtually no backing from the Maine Democratic Party, which threw its support behind eventual winner, Angus King.

The Democratic Machine has left Bellows similarly stranded while it has brought out the big guns for Michaud. (Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton have all come to Maine to stump for Michaud in recent weeks, with President Barack Obama scheduled for a campaign event on Thursday.)

As Press Herald reporter Kevin Miller writes in a recent story on Bellows' "quixotic" campaign, "Bellows has raised more than $2 million--far less than her opponent, but a respectable sum for a campaign that has received little fundraising help from a Democratic Party focused elsewhere" ("Race for the U.S. Senate: The first-timer," 10/12/14).

But candidates like Bellows--who, on the face of it at least, support everything the Democratic Party ostensibly stands for--nonetheless serve a purpose. That purpose is to draw jaded, betrayed liberals back into the Democratic Party.

As Elizabeth Schulte explains in a recent piece on Elizabeth Warren--whom many have compared to Bellows, including Bellows herself--for the Socialist Worker, "Like so many other liberal figures before her, Warren's main impact is to put a populist facade on a Democratic Party that stands for preserving corporate power" ("The progressive face of a regressing party," 10/20/2014).

She continues:

The hope among so many Democratic liberals is that people like Elizabeth Warren will bring the Democratic Party back to its true populist roots. But the opposite is true. The role of liberal figures like Warren--like Dennis Kucinich or Jesse Jackson or many more before them--is to pull progressive supporters of the Democrats back to the party at election time. 

After all, the Dems can't risk alienated liberal voters leaving the Democratic Party for, say the Green Party, can they? Even despite Bellows' all but certain defeat at the polls, many Democratic insiders believe she is "laying the groundwork" for subsequent campaigns.

And therein lies the real function of figures like Bellows. Even if Bellows were to win on Election Day, she would, in all likelihood, promptly abandon her progressive platform and, like Warren, fall in lockstep with the Democratic rank-and-file.

No, Shenna Bellows will not save us. Nor will a Gov. Mike Michaud or Eliot Cutler. The only hope for true progressive change--in Maine and nationwide--is by breaking away entirely with the two-party corporate duopoly.

All of the major democratic reforms throughout history--from the right of women to vote, the civil rights movement, labor rights, regulatory and environmental reforms--have come from outside the two-party system. Even FDR had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to enact his New Deal policies--though one would never know it from high school history class or Ken Burns' recent hagiographic documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.

It was only through the hard-won struggles of socialists, anarchists, feminists and labor leaders that we gained Social Security, child labor laws, Medicare/Medicaid, workers' comp., the five-day, 40-hour work week and weekends off. Few of the activists behind these struggles ever achieved formal positions of power.

To be clear, I am not advocating not voting--though, at the same time, I can perfectly understand why some voters might choose to stay home next Tuesday. And yes, I too can't stand LePage. The man is an arrogant, ignorant bully. But I can't stand Michaud, either. And I gave up on voting for the "lesser evil" a long time ago.

"I'd rather vote for what I want and not get it," socialist leader and perennial presidential candidate, Eugene Debs said, "than vote for what I don't want and get it."

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Ebola and the Need For Single-Payer Health Care

A screenshot from Fox News' Sean Hannity Show.

Forget about Ebola. The real disease is capitalism.

America is a strange country--a "land of superstition," as Henry David Thoreau wrote. Our sensationalized, "If-It-Bleeds-It-Leads" corporate media has us all scared to death of Ebola, even though your chances of actually contracting the disease are pretty minimal. Meanwhile, anthropogenic climate change is causing the planet to hurtle full-throttle toward a catastrophic 4-6 degree rise in temperature, yet the media do not seem to be that concerned.

Point being, in the grand scheme of things global warming represents a far greater, more immediate, and decidedly deadlier threat to human civilization than Ebola (or, for that matter, ISIS.)

But try telling that to the average Fox News-watching American.

That is not to say Ebola is completely harmless. It is not. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are right to take proper precautions to prevent the disease from spreading.

But, as AlterNet's Larry Schwartz points out in a recent article titled, "Ebola is Scary, But These 6 Things are a Lot Scarier" (10/15/2014), we have far more to fear from lack of gun control, smoking, vehicular fatalities (wherein the victim was not wearing a seat belt), and over-consumption of alcohol which is responsible for over 88,000 deaths annually.

Schwartz, a health, science and nutrition writer, goes on to explain that the only way to become infected with the Ebola virus is through direct contact with a victim's "blood, vomit, or other bodily fluid," via one's "eye, mouth, nose or [an] open cut."

"Ebola is very hard to get," he writes. "Period."

Schwartz goes on, "Americans tend to worry a great deal about illnesses they shouldn't worry about, while at the same time not worrying about very real threats to their health."

So wash your hands, folks (with soap and warm water--not that generic Purell crap), and chill out. The Ebola outbreak is not the long-anticipated "zombie Apocalypse" many have feared and/or hoped for.

But if you want to talk about something really frightening, let's consider how the U.S. for-profit health care system impacts the Ebola epidemic. Indeed, our lack of universal health care both hinders efforts to contain (and ultimately treat) the virus and almost assures it will spread further.

(For the record, "Obamacare" is nothing like single-payer, universal health care, even though a number of liberal pundits--Paul Krugman most notably--routinely claim it is the same thing.)

Consider, for instance, the budget-cutting austerity measures politicians have enacted on most of the West and parts of Europe. Much has been made of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital's botched response to the death of Thomas Duncan, the first person to die from Ebola in the U.S. on Oct. 8.

While conservatives have pointed to the hospital's failure to properly diagnose Duncan and its various other missteps as evidence that "Big Government" is incompetent and incapable of responding to widespread health emergencies, if anything, these failures are more an indictment of the (fictional) "free-market."

In fact, the budgets for both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have been cut in recent years in the name of austerity, according to the New York Times. The NIH saw its budget decrease from $31.2 billion in 2010 to $30.1 billion in 2014.

Likewise, the nurses who treated Duncan at the Dallas hospital were woefully ill-equipped to properly protect themselves from exposure to the virus--again, due to budget-cuts and a lack of clear protocols.

According to the Los Angeles Times, nurses at THPH "described a hospital with no clear guidelines in place for handling Ebola patients..." And their protective gear was almost laughably inefficient, consisting of "gloves with no wrist tapes, gowns that did not cover their necks, and no surgical booties" according to the Times' story.

As Nicole Colson states in an article for the Socialist Worker (10/16/2014), "The idea that critical government agencies in charge of protecting the public health could have their budgets slashed in the richest country on earth is absurd."

Yet, in a move straight out of the Ayn Rand screw-the-workers-playbook, THPH and health officials are placing blame for Duncan's death on Nina Pham and Amber Vinson--the two nurses who treated him. CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden claims 26-year-old Pham became infected with Ebola due to her own "protocol breach," in a press conference shortly after Duncan's death.

It is worth pausing to ponder why it is that Europeans are not freaking out about Ebola the way we are in the West. Much of it could be due to the fact that most European countries have two vital worker-health laws the U.S. lacks: Single-payer health care and paid sick-leave.

Indeed, as Dave Lindorff observes in a recent post on his news-blog, This Can't Be ("Dickensian US Working Conditions Almost Guarantee Ebola Catastrophe," 10/12/2014):

One reason Europeans are not in a state of hysteria about Ebola the way the US public is, besides the confidence Europeans have in their universal health care systems, is that they know that waiters, maids and housekeepers have a right to paid sick leave, so they are not going to be on the job infecting others if they get the disease. They'll be availing themselves of free or next-to-free healthcare and getting tested and if necessary, treated.

The nurses' union, National Nurses United (NNU) has made a similar argument. "As NNU pointed out in a statement," Colson writes in her piece, "because the U.S. lacks a national health care system, preparedness for a crisis like Ebola is woefully uneven from hospital to hospital."

America remains the only industrialized country in the world that does not treat health care as a basic human right. Even post-invasion Iraq has single-payer health care as guaranteed by the Bush-drafted and Iraqi-approved 2005 constitution. In other words, single-payer is good enough for the people of the countries we illegally invade and "democratize" via gunpoint, but not for citizens of our own country.

So take a deep breath, America. Turn off the fear-mongering cable-news talking heads. Many of them are simply using the Ebola outbreak as an excuse for racism. There is plenty of truly scary stuff out there to be worried about--capitalism being chief among them.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Foul Play

Photo from

On the intersection between sports and militarism.

Is there any greater evidence of the violence routinely celebrated in American culture than the popularity of professional sports? The question is not meant to be hyperbolic or rhetorical.

No doubt spectator sports, like any other form of popular entertainment, play a role in pacifying and distracting citizens from more pertinent civic matters. The Romans had their gladiator games--their "bread and circuses." We have our Super Bowls.

But, at the same time, sports also reinforce imperial sentiments of war, competition, sexism and homophobia, aggressiveness, and an "us-versus-them" mentality fostered by team rivalries like that between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

While there is nothing wrong with a little healthy competition--indeed, it is an integral part of the game--Red Sox and Yankees fans take this bitter, often vulgar rivalry so far one would think the two sides are not competing baseball teams but feuding mobsters, each sworn to the other's destruction.

It is not a stretch to see the same sort of "Otherness" Yankees fans take on in the eyes of Red Sox supporters replicated in the "War on Terror." Muslims at large have become the new Communist--a terrorist "Other" from a supposedly backward, barbaric part of the world we Americans do not--and make no effort to--understand.

As a result, sports are the perfect method of indoctrinating young people into the militarism of American empire--if not into the U.S. military itself. We often hear African Americans talk of the "school-to-prison pipeline," in comparing the two authoritarian environments. Consider high school and college athletics the "sports-to-military pipeline."

As world-renowned linguist and political dissident, Noam Chomsky observes in the 1992 documentary film, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, (based on the book of the same name which Chomsky co-wrote with Wharton School Professor Edward Herman) sports serve as a way to instill in young people "irrational attitudes of submission to authority," along with "group cohesion in irrational jingoism."

Certainly, these are traits well suited to the young solider recently deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or one of the other numerous nations we are currently involved in.

George Orwell was more blunt in his assessment of sports.

"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play," Orwell wrote. "It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting."

Nowhere was this link between sports and the military more abundantly clear than at Kennebunk High School's recent "Armed Forces Night," in my hometown of Kennebunk, Maine. The newly-launched "thank-you-for-your-service" ceremony, which started last year, honors current, former and "fallen" local soldiers during the KHS early October football game.

The event is the brainchild of KHS assistant football coach Nick Parent. In a story (10/18/2013) in the local weekly rag, The Kennebunk Post (the free paper is little more than advertisements, press releases, and feel-good puff pieces), Parent mouthed the same tired, empty platitudes to "supporting the troops," who "fought for our freedom," we are routinely bombarded with by politicians, the media, and popular culture.

(Of course, our gratitude is reserved only for those veterans who dutifully read from the Pentagon-sanctioned script and extol the virtues of war upon returning home. Those veterans who speak honestly of the true horrors of war or, even worse, openly question the rationales for the wars entirely--soldiers like Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl or members of Iraq Veterans Against the War--are, apparently, not worthy of our support.)

The crowd at the Armed Forces Night game cheered jubilantly at every mention of the army. Many of them, including the cheerleaders, wore camouflage-colored bracelets that said, "U.S. Armed Forces." Throughout the game, several local veterans were called to the field and singled out for their service.

Yet there was no mention of drone strikes, targeted assassinations, the surveillance state, or the very real and chilling fact that, under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), anybody in the audience could be randomly swept up by the government, at any time, for any reason, and imprisoned indefinitely with no trial.

I guess those inconvenient facts would have dulled the otherwise celebratory atmosphere of the night. The rousing pop-songs by artists like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus that intermittently blared through the speakers further reinforced the sentiment that war is one giant party. And you, too, can be invited. Sign up here.

It all begs the question: To what extent do events like this serve as an elaborate recruitment tool for the U.S. military? Furthermore, what sort of message are we sending our children when public schools appear to be pushing the military as a worthwhile and perfectly reasonable career option?

Indeed, the unspoken irony of the night was the fact that schools and universities throughout the nation are seeing budgets, faculty, staff, and resources slashed, while we ramp up our numerous and ever expanding wars against ISIS in Syria and our recent recommitment in Iraq. Over 50 percent of our federal income taxes go to the "Defense" budget.

Then again, sports teams like The Kennebunk Rams will likely be spared. It is the music, theater, and liberal arts classes that are always first to go in times of fiscal crises. Sports? They're sacrosanct.

But war is not a game. It is nothing like Saving Private Ryan or other glitzy Hollywood war movies. Soldiers do not return from war as hypermasculine warrior-heroes.

As former New York Times foreign correspondent, Chris Hedges, points out, most Americans have little concept of the true horrors of war. And given our all-volunteer army, the majority of us spend precious little time even thinking about our state of permanent war. They have become an abstraction that we simply tune out in favor of American Idol or Downton Abbey.

So by all means, root, root for the home team, if you so desire. Just be sure you understand what it is you are really rooting for: "War minus the shooting."