Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hard Times and Small Victories

A recent development in Portland's ongoing war against poor residents is good news for the latter group.

A federal judge struck down the city's recently enacted ban on panhandling on median strips last week, calling the ordinance unconstitutional. In his decision, U.S. District Judge George Singal claimed the ordinance, in addition to prohibiting panhandlers' First Amendment rights to free speech, is not content neutral since it still allows political candidates to place signs in median strips. The City Council passed the sweeping ordinance last summer in a 6-0 vote.

Councilors and city officials claimed the ordinance was necessary to protect both panhandlers and motorists from harm. But none of them offered any substantive evidence that vehicular accidents have increased in the city as a result of panhandlers' presence on busy median strips.

In fact, a brief report from ABC affiliate, WMTW-8 (06/13/2013) observed, "While numbers of calls for service to police because of people in the median have gone up, it's not clear whether anybody has actually been hurt because of people standing in the median of roads."

Judge Singal was right to throw this misguided law out. From the beginning it was asinine.

As I pointed out after the ordinance's passage, even if left unchallenged it would have done nothing to eliminate or even reduce the practice of panhandling in the city--assuming that was its intent. Indeed, median strip panhandlers have remained a steady presence in Portland, even after the law's passage. And Portland Police, by their own admission, never strictly enforced the ordinance, probably because they have more pressing priorities to attend to.

This suggests to me it is the city's yuppie, upper-middle class residents, and the members of the various neighborhood association groups which actively pushed the ordinance, that truly have a problem with desperate, poor people begging in the streets--not the police.

What bothered me from the beginning about this ordinance--aside, that is, from its blatant free speech incursions--was its cloying disingenuousness. City officials' argument that in order to keep panhandlers safe we need to kick them out of visible roadways and highly trafficked areas, smacks of liberal elitism. It recalls Bill Clinton's empty, "I feel your pain," sound bite.

Let's get real: This ordinance was never about seriously addressing the poverty, homelessness, and outright desperation that lead one to literally beg on the streets for money. It was to placate the callous, easily offended sensibilities of the city's upper-middle class business elite. As Portland Daily Sun columnist, and 2013 Green Party City Council candidate, Chris Shorr notes in his recent editorial (02/13/2014), "...just because people's naïve, delicate view of the world might be altered by the realities of poverty doesn't give us the right to force marginalized people into the shadows."

The median strip debate is part of an ongoing trend here in Portland and throughout the country with regard to the poor and disenfranchised. One can draw a direct line between the city's crackdown on panhandling, and the controversial sale of Congress Square Park to an out-of-state corporation.

Congress Square Park has long been a popular hangout for Portland's homeless, mentally ill, and destitute. Many of these individuals suffer from schizophrenia, head injury, alcoholism or drug addiction. They often have no family or friends to care for them. A number of them are veterans of America's imperial adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Having served their "patriotic duty" in the military, they are now promptly thrust aside, out of sight and out of mind of the rest of us who know nothing of the horrors of war.

Others lost their homes due to mounting medical bills--the number one cause of home foreclosure. The U.S. remains the only nation in the industrialized world that relies on a for-profit, pay-or-die health care system. Even post-invasion Iraq has universal, single-payer health care. (And no, Obamacare is not universal health care. I wish it were too, but calling it such does not make it so.)

Yes, some of the park's regulars become vulgar, even violent at times. Contrary to popular belief, Portland is a city, and, unfortunately, cities tend to attract their share of "undesirable" elements. Middle class residents who do not want to deal with such public behavior would be better suited living in Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth or my hometown of Kennebunk.

But I know I am not alone in my suspicion that the now delayed sale of Congress Square Park, in addition to bringing the city more revenue (supposedly) and new jobs (again, supposedly), will also have the added benefit of "cleaning up" the area from what one prominent local reporter calls the "worst order of street people."

Indeed, Mayor Michael Brennan and city officials seem hell-bent on turning Portland into the next Kennebunkport, a yuppie, tourist destination with ample parking lots, events centers, swanky hotels and cruise lines. And we certainly can't have tourists seeing any homeless people begging on street corners, can we?

Regardless of what one thinks of the ever increasing presence of panhandlers in Portland, the fact remains this law did nothing to address the root causes of poverty. Despite what Scott Pelley or Brian Williams may tell you, this country is still in the grip of a devastating recession--the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We are, furthermore, witnessing a vast, unprecedented transference of income in which the top one percent controls 43 percent of the nation's wealth.

Is it any wonder we are seeing more Americans begging for spare change?

But what do I know, right? I mean, these people chose to live on the streets, didn't they? Poverty, like homosexuality, is simply a lifestyle choice, isn't it? These moochers have clearly never worked for anything in their lives. We Americans can have anything--anything!--we want, if only we work hard, apply ourselves, do what we are told, and, most importantly, never question the world around us. Isn't that the American Dream?

It is curious--striking, really--how little these attitudes toward the poor have changed since Charles Dickens's time. Perhaps literature's greatest champion of the poor, particularly the plight of poor children, Dickens's 1854 novel Hard Times is a scathing satire of the super rich and their snobbish, callous indifference toward the poor residents of the fictional Coketown.

In the novel, the wealthy, self-absorbed industrialist Mr. Bounderby accuses his union-agitating workers of expecting "to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon," when, of course, they have demanded nothing of the kind. Bounderby, who constantly touts his purportedly "self-made" status and "penniless childhood," (a story which, it turns out, has been greatly exaggerated) lambastes the noble, hard-working Stephen Blackpool for desiring a divorce from his loveless, alcoholic wife. Yet he has no difficulty abruptly ending his own marriage, essentially walking out on his young trophy wife, toward the novel's end. Such action reveals the rank hypocrisy and double-standards of the rich.

Stephen, though uneducated, nonetheless starkly sums up the plight of the working-poor to Mr. Bounderby with his poignant observation:

Look how we live an' where we live, an' in what numbers, an' by what chances an' with what sameness; an' look how the mills is [always] a-goin', and how they never works us no nigher to [any] distant object--'ceptin' [always] Death. Look how you considers of us, and writes of us, and talks of us, and goes up with your deputations to Secretaries of State 'bout us, and how you are alwus right and how we are alwus wrong and never had no reason in us [since] ever we were born.... Who can you look on it sir, and fairly not tell a man, 'tis not a muddle? 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mr. Mitchell Goes to Augusta

Go back to bed, America. George Mitchell and the power elite are in control.

Perhaps the greatest lie of American politics in the 21st century is the myth of congressional gridlock.

This myth, which is constantly perpetuated by corporate news outlets from MSNBC to Fox News, to NPR, claims the Democratic and Republican parties hold "irreconcilable ideologies," which prevent them from working together to achieve "common ground." These ideological differences, we are told, have never been vaster than they are today. According to this myth, the two parties' stands on issues like immigration, health care, the minimum wage and the overall role of government are simply "worlds apart."

Consider this opening lead from U.S. News & World Report's coverage of last December's congressional budget deal ("Forget the Budget Deal, Congressional Gridlock Still the Norm on Capitol Hill," 12/19/2013):

The polar(-ized) ice caps of Congress may seem like they're melting with the passage of a budget deal crafted by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., but political observers point out there's still much they disagree on--beyond even the science behind the melt.

Yet the Murray-Ryan budget is a perfect example of why this myth of congressional gridlock--of the Democrats' and Republicans' supposedly irreconcilable worldviews--is complete nonsense. While pundits lauded last December's budget deal as a rare and encouraging instance of "bipartisanship" and "compromise" (that and the fact the budget deal averted another government shutdown), the actual contents of the budget package suggest both parties got exactly what they wanted: Tax-cuts for the rich and austerity for the rest of us.

When it comes to the fundamental, pertinent issues of our time--war and peace, civil liberties, the surveillance state, the primacy of the "free-market," and the subordination of the environment to capitalism--the Republicans and Democrats march in unyielding lockstep.

True, the two parties maintain legitimately conflicting views on abortion, immigration, gay marriage, gun ownership and which party is more welcoming to women and minorities. But these "Culture Wars"-inspired controversies are little more than wedge issues, faithfully trotted out every four years to motivate voters. In the case of left-leaning voters, that means convincing them to vote for the "lesser of two evils."

As the Socialist Worker observed in an Oct. 1, 2013 editorial, media coverage of the corporate parties "obscures how far to the right both [parties] have traveled together over the years."

The editors write:

They agree on imposing sweeping cuts in most government programs, though not the Pentagon; they differ on how deep the cuts should be. They agree on a health care system where the medical-pharmaceutical-insurance complex calls the shots; they differ about parts of a law designed to preserve the industry's profits and power. They agree on a system where Corporate America piles up record profits by driving down the living standards of working-class people; they disagree only on the details of how that system should operate.
Contrary to popular belief, Washington is not broken. Congress and the federal government work just fine. The problem is they are not working for "We the People." They are working for Wall Street, the economic one percent, and the military-industrial-complex.

Yet, it was this "Gridlock-Still-the-Norm" script George Mitchell read from when he addressed the Maine Legislature's Hall of Flags, last week.

The celebrated former U.S. Senator and Senate Majority Leader (D-ME) spoke at the unveiling of his portrait. Like Maine's equally overrated, supposed champion of political "centrism," former Sen. Olympia Snowe, Mitchell claims Washington's problem is lawmakers' refusal to "listen to one another." His bland, anecdotal speech recalled his time as Senate Majority Leader, when he and his Democratic colleagues "actually listened to one another." Mitchell holds this bygone era up in contrast to today's "mean-spirited" political culture as a sort of Golden Age of bipartisanship.

For an idea of just how "moderate" and "bipartisan" Mitchell is, consider the former U.S. Middle East Special Envoy's refusal to label Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank as "apartheid," even though that term seems to accurately describe the situation.

"Our country remains the most free, most just, most open society in all of human history," the Bowdoin graduate and former Falmouth resident proclaimed to the audience.

Uh-huh. Just don't ask Pfc. Chelsea Manning how "just" she thinks her country is. I have a feeling she might disagree with Mitchell, just a little. Last summer, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking hundreds of classified U.S. military documents to WikiLeaks--the longest sentence ever issued for a whistleblower.

Or, ask Edward Snowden about America's brand of "justice." Or, Thomas Drake. Or Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, Abdulrahman. Both U.S. citizens were killed by unmanned predator drones at President Obama's personal discretion.

"I believe in the American Dream," Mitchell later said, "because I've lived it." Well...It must be nice to be George Mitchell.

Not only did Mitchell praise an America that increasingly bears little resemblance to the current country we live in, but his cut-and-paste lecture felt more like a celebratory college graduation address. In a follow-up interview with the Bangor Daily News (01/28/2014), Mitchell predicted the U.S. is "on the precipice of one of the most prosperous eras in American history."

While I certainly hope Sen. Mitchell is correct, most of what I read paints a considerably bleaker future for the country and the planet. Go back to bed, America. George Mitchell and the power elite are in control. Everything will be alright. The Golden Age is upon us. Just keep working, shopping and whatever you do, do not ask any questions.

What is most striking about Mitchell's speech is that it could just as easily have been delivered by a Republican. This is, indeed, further evidence of the corporate parties' interchangeability. The lie of congressional gridlock and the illusion of choice in our elections keeps progressive voters--including women, the poor and what remains of the middle class--tied at the hip to a Democratic Party that does not care one iota about them. Corporate Democrats like Barack Obama need the liberal class to win election (twice in his case), yet cannot turn around and throw its members--the Democrats' base of supporters--under the bus fast enough.

Yet liberals refuse to abandon the Democrats. Half of left-leaning voters claim to have no idea what the Green Party is, while the other half remains convinced that actually casting a vote in support of a Green amounts to a "wasted" vote. They are, effectively, Albert Einstein's definition of insanity, as "doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result."

Journalist Chris Hedges calls this a "form of collective domestic abuse."

"And as so often happens in the weird pathology of victim and victimizer," he wrote in a 2008 piece for Truthdig.com ("The Hedonists of Power," 06/23/2008), "we keep coming back for more."

The Portland Green Independent Committee will hold its biennial caucus Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 at City Hall in Portland (389 Congress Street, in the "State of Maine Room."). Caucus starts at 1:00 p.m. All registered Greens are encouraged to attend. A city official will be present a half-hour beforehand for non-Greens & new voters to register with the party.