Irreparable Damage, Voting Subjects, & Direct Action

I get the feeling that Barack Obama has done irreparable damage to the political left. So many Americans genuinely believed in and were excited by his message of hope and change. I bet even many people from the political right voted for him.

There was such a profound sense of disappointment and betrayal once he had been in office for a while. It turned out he was just another professional politician and that the hype had meant very little. He continued many of the same policies from the Bush administration. Worse still, he passed healthcare reform that was originally a Republican idea which favored insurance and drug companies, rather than the leftist single payer reform most Americans wanted.

Obama’s presidency has made many Americans far more cynical than they’ve been in a long time. No one expects Republicans to genuinely care about the poor and needy, to fight for the rights and opportunities of the lower classes. But many do expect this from Democrats, however naïve that might be.

I know of those who supported Obama in 2008. Some of them now support Clinton, Obama’s nemesis back then. The heir of hope and change is Bernie Sanders. Yet many have lost faith that hope and change is possible. It’s not just fear of Trump. These Clinton supporters, in many cases, have simply resigned themselves to the notion that Clinton is the best that the Democratic party will ever offer. It’s either take that pathetic choice or get nothing at all, so it seems from this jaded mindset.

Older voters, in particular, feel wary about trusting that genuine progress and reform is possible. They don’t want to be betrayed again. They’d rather go for the cynical choice because at least that way they’ll know what they’re getting. When cynicism overtakes the citizenry, that is the most dangerous moment for a democracy.

That is what Sanders is fighting against.

* * *

For US citizens, voting is a right. But it is also a privilege.

For one thing, not all US citizens have the right to vote, besides the young. Convicts and many ex-cons don’t have the right to vote. Many others who technically have the right to vote are politically disenfranchised and demoralized in various ways, by both parties in elections and in the presidential nomination process.

Another issue is that, for all intents and purposes, the US is an empire. Most of the people directly and indirectly effected by US policy aren’t voting US citizens. Who and what you support with your vote impacts not only non-voting Americans but also billions of people around the world.

This includes millions harmed, millions made homeless refugees, millions starving, and millions killed. Those impacted, mostly innocent victims, come from wars, including wars of aggression, proxy wars, and drug wars; CIA covert operations, such as inciting of governments coups, propped-up puppet dictators, US-backed authoritarian regimes, arming of paramilitaries, and School of the Americas military training; post-colonial resource exploitation, unfree trade agreements, US-aligned IMF-enforced austerity policies, and harmful sanctions; et cetera.

As a subject of the empire, you benefit greatly from US policies. It is other people, mostly poor and brown people, mostly in other countries that have to pay the full costs of these imperial benefits.

You are never making merely a personal decision when you vote. You are part of a privileged class of people on this planet. Your vote matters and the results are powerful. This is true, even as the system is rigged against American voters. The last thing you should ever do is support a candidate who supports the corrupt status quo of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.

We Americans should take all of this much more seriously. For those who have personally experienced US power, this isn’t idle campaign rhetoric. What is at stake is their lives, their families, and their communities. This isn’t about your party or candidate winning. It’s about morality and justice. Be sure you’re on the right side of history. You are complicit in what you support. Choose wisely.

* * *

When I was a child, I played soccer. My main talents were that I could run fast and take pain. I often played defense because I was good at stopping things. I demonstrated this talent during one game when in elementary school. I was probably playing halfback that day, as it requires a lot of running around. A halfback’s purpose is to be a go-between, to go where and do what is needed. It requires adaptability to the situation, whether defense or offense is required.

Anyway, in whatever position I was in, it was further up the field. The game had just begun. The other team had the ball. One of their players dropped it back and got out of the way. A giant girl came forward and kicked the ball all the way down the field. She was their one great weapon. It forced everyone on my team to immediately run back down the field. After a second time of this, many on my team were already running before the ball went flying. After observing this predictable situation, a brilliant idea popped into my mind. Why not simply stop the ball before it goes flying? So, at the next opportunity, I ran full speed right at that girl and took a body blow. Every time they did it again, I took another body blow. It stopped the ball and allowed my teammates to push the play forward, instead of backwards.

It was a proud moment of my childhood. But I’ve always wondered what the life lesson was from this incident. Well, besides the willingness to take a hit for the team. A few things come to mind. A basic lesson is to look for the obvious. Another is that direct action can be a good thing. Also, it’s much easier to prevent something than to react to it once it has already happened.

I’d apply these lessons to the entire society I live in. Politics most of all. I’ve come to realize how rare it is for people to see the obvious. Partisan politics shows the power of groupthink. Everyone sees the situation as inevitable and then reacts to it. This feels justified, as every0ne else is reacting as well. Strategy usually consists of trying to react more effectively. It doesn’t occur to many people that, if there is an obvious problem, maybe we should do the obvious thing to stop the problem.

Our society is full of obvious problems. The solution or prevention to these problems is often just as obvious. Yet we seem stuck in a mentality of endless reaction, always chasing the ball down the field. But what if we simply threw ourselves in front of that ball. Would it hurt? Yes. Would it stop the problem and make life easier for all involved? Yes, a thousand times over.

If we want to reform our society and make the world a better place, then we should do it. In the simplest, most direct way possible. We’ve already wasted enough time tiring ourselves out by running the wrong direction down the field, again and again and again. One would think that we as a society would finally grasp the obvious.

Let’s stop the problem first. Then we can act as a team to move forward.

Battle In Seattle: A Personal Response

I just watched the film Battle In Seattle.

I don’t have any grand opinion about it’s quality as entertainment. It isn’t great art, but it did hold my attention. More importantly, it’s about as close as Hollywood usually ever comes to even slightly grasping the reality of a major grassroots protest… which isn’t necessarily saying a lot. It is worthy in how it gives one some idea of what it might feel like to be at such an event. But, of course, it inevitably leaves out a lot of context and substance. It’s only a movie, afterall. In order to have any real understanding, you would’ve had to been there and have read tons of material about it.

I realize many people criticize the film because of its failings, but I’m annoyed by people who criticize it with an attitude of superiority. It’s just a fucking movie. Anyway, it introduces a lot of people to an event that they would otherwise be ignorant about. It might even inspire some people do some research to learn something new.

Anyway, here is one scene that caught my attention:

Sam: “How do you stop those who stop at nothing?”

Jay: “You don’t stop.”

You could say that it’s just cheesy dialogue (“The conversations are made up of clichés or slogans.”), but that misses the point. Cheese or not, it is still true. That is the 64 million dollar question. I feel that question gnawing at my mind (not the exact wording, but the sentiment of the question). It’s always there. The character realizes that those with power control everything including the media. This protest was before the rise of the internet as we now know it. The average person couldn’t easily put videos on the web and have it go viral. Still, even with the internet today, most people feel just as powerless. The mainstream media only reports what is in the interest of the corporations that own the media.

Why did the protests fail? Was it because of the violence? No. If it had been completely peaceful, it would have had even less impact and would now be forgotten. It wasn’t a complete failure. The problem is the media won’t pay attention until they are forced to pay attention. Even when they are forced, they will still just spin the story. Seattle didn’t succeed for the simple reason it was only one protest. Imagine, however, if protests like that had been going on in every major city around the US and around the world all at the same time.

But that wasn’t the real reason I wanted to post about this movie. I was curious about the lines I quoted above and so did a websearch. I found two reviews which both portrayed different versions of an attitude of superiority.

The first reviewer is someone who apparently is an activist and he feels superior out of some sense of haughtiness. His review had two parts (here is the first part), but it was the second part that interested me where he has some minor commentary on the above scene. His commentary lacks any deep insight and so I won’t quote it, just wanted to point it out as an example. The author seemed to be expressing garden variety cynicism… and was looking down upon mere mortals who might enjoy this movie as an introduction to a major event in US history. I guess he is too cool for any movie made for the masses.

The second reviewer annoyed me even more and I will quote the relevant section below. Basically, the reviewer was entirely ignorant of this major event despite his working in the media at the time. He acts nonchalant, maybe even slightly proud, about his own ignorance. And then he blames the movie for not lessening his ignorance (considering the degree of his ignorance, that is probably expecting too much out of a movie based on a complex event).

The funny thing about this real-life incident is that I was alive and well and conscious and even working at a newspaper in 1999, and yet I have no memory of it whatsoever. I’m guessing I read the news stories, saw “World Trade Organization,” had no idea what that was or why people were protesting it, and stopped reading before I got to the good part, i.e., the part where cops were busting hippie skulls.

The film is kind of terrible. It makes almost no effort to explain the protesters’ grievances against the WTO, instead assuming that we will be on their side regardless. One of the characters even makes a joke about how the general public doesn’t know what the WTO is; all they know is that it’s bad. So, OK, ha ha, interesting comment, but it kinda undermines the WHOLE POINT OF YOUR MOVIE.

Also undermining the movie: the terrible, terrible dialogue. I quote some of the more generic examples:

“The press would have a field day!”

HE: “You know nothing about me!”
SHE: “I’ve been around men like you all my life.”

(Spoken to a pregnant woman.) “You want adventure? You just signed up for the greatest adventure of all!”

“You’re gonna turn downtown into a war zone!”

“How do you stop those who stop at nothing?”

So … yeah. “Battle in Seattle.” The minute I saw this film, I knew it was poo.

I’ve noticed there are many other films about the WTO protests in Seattle:

Showdown In Seattle

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

I noticed that some people highly recommend them, but I haven’t watched them. So, I can’t say anything about them, much less compare them to the Battle In Seattle. But let me end with someone defending the relevance of the Battle In Seattle (emphasis mine):

The issue that Battle in Seattle filmmaker Stuart Townsend seeks to raise, as he recently stated, is “[what it takes] to create real and meaningful change.”

The question is notoriously difficult. In the film, characters like Martin Henderson’s Jay, a veteran environmental campaigner driven by a tragedy experienced on a past logging campaign, and Michelle Rodriguez’s Lou, a hard-bitten animal rights activist, debate the effectiveness of protest. Even as they take to Seattle’s streets, staring down armor-clad cops (Woody Harrelson, Channing Tatum) commanded by a tormented and indecisive mayor (Ray Liotta), they wonder whether their actions can have an impact.

Generally speaking, the response of many Americans is to dismiss protests out of hand-arguing that demonstrators are just blowing off steam and won’t make a difference. But if any case can be held as a counter-example, Seattle is it.

The 1999 mobilization against the World Trade Organization has never been free from criticism. As Andre 3000’s character in the movie quips, even the label “Battle in Seattle” makes the protests sound less like a serious political event and more “like a Monster Truck show.” While the demonstrations were still playing out and police were busy arresting some 600 people, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman issued his now-famous edict stating that deluded activists were just “looking for their 1960s fix.” This type of disregard has continued with the release of the film. A review in the Seattle Weekly dismissively asked, “Remind me again what those demonstrations against the WTO actually accomplished.”

While cynicism comes cheap, those concerned about global poverty, sweatshop labor, outsourced jobs, and threats to the environment can witness remarkable changes on the international scene. Today, trade talks at the WTO are in shambles, sister institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are now shriveled versions of their once-imposing selves, and the ideology of neoliberal corporate globalization is under intense fire, with mainstream economists defecting from its ranks and entire regions such as Latin America in outright revolt. As global justice advocates have long argued, the forces that created these changes “did not start in Seattle.” Yet few trade observers would deny that the week of protest late in the last millennium marked a critical turning point.