Grassroots or Astroturf?

How does one tell a grassroots organization from astroturf?

That was the issue of last presidential election. It was proven how widespread astroturf had become. It wasn’t only the Russians. In the presidential campaign before that, Hillary Clinton had planned to use paid trolls. And we already have seen investigative reporting on the networks of groups being funded by powerful interests. When dealing with an individual or group, how does any of us really know who we are dealing with?

During the Soviet era, something like one in three citizens were either working for or informing to the KGB. That is what politics feels like right now in the United States. Dark money is flowing in such immense amounts, from the likes of the Mercer family and Koch brothers. It’s largely untraceable.

“There has been some good investigative reporting on it, published in scholarly books and in the alternative media. Dark Money by Jane Mayer is one example. Another one is Buzzfeed’s in-depth report on how the Koch brothers and Mercer family funneled money to Steve Bannon, Breitbart News, Project Veritas, etc. Both of these probably only scratched the surface of what goes on behind the scenes, as they are just two examples among many” (Skepticism and Conspiracy).

Other more well known examples involve climate change denialism. It is endless. One could spend one’s life attempting to uncover the corruption that rules our society and still never discover a fraction of it.

To make matters worse, over the past half century, almost all media has become concentrated into transnational corporations that are directly tied to the two-party stranglehold of corporatocracy. The tech industry and social media, of course, are also entangled with this maze of big biz and in many cases with big gov (the entire tech industry was built on government defense funding and Jeff Bezos was essentially born into the military-industrial complex).

Meddling foreign governments are the least of our worries.

I was reminded of this with the campaign season heating up. I came across a Facebook group, Democracy Rising. The first group rule is: “Unite the Democratic Party.” But I noticed that any Democratic candidate that isn’t a Clinton DNC elite is attacked viciously, including by the woman running the group, Betty Plumley.

There was one particular post that demonstrated this. Plumley invited responses by saying, “Lets discuss the negatives and positives of Bernie Sanders.” It has so far received 171 responses. Almost all of them were harshly critical, including by Plumley, not uniting of the Democratic Party in the slightest, except for a few commenters who dared to speak out (one guy said his comment was deleted when he simply stated that Sanders is better than Trump; other people said their similar comments were removed).

The group’s real purpose, if we are to go by the posts, is to divide the Democratic Party and to attack the political left, to conflate Sanders and Trump with false equivalency and once again advocate lesser evilism, or maybe simply to muddy the water with bad feelings and conflict. Whatever is the intention, that is what such groups achieve. And one begins to suspect that this result might very well be what is expected, not merely an unforeseen and unfortunate side effect of those lacking social skills and political acumen in fighting authoritarianism.

What concerned me is, when I checked out the names of first dozen or so commenters, almost none of them had any friends listed: “No friends to show”. Who are these ‘people’ on Facebook apparently with no visibly indicated human connections? Their timelines are public, but no friends. Some didn’t even have much or anything on their timelines nor even photos. And others joined Facebook sometime this past year.

This might be a real group. And these might be real people. But how would I know? I’m not trying to be paranoid, although it’s hard not to be these days. These are honest questions. How does a citizenry remain informed when surrounded by disinformation campaigns that are secretly funded and operated? And how can a population under these conditions ever hope to be genuinely free?

Enlightenment values of democracy and liberty are no match for modern authoritarianism, of plutocracy and corporatism and inverted totalitarianism. Most Americans are simply clueless. How do we fight what we can’t see? And for those of us who realize how dangerous it’s become, how do we promote a sense of crisis and urgency for a public that has fallen into apathy and cynicism?

Democracy & Protests, Movements & Tipping Points

This is something that concerns me because it cuts to the heart of democracy.

http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/09/welcome-to-the-police-state-nyc-cops-mace-peaceful-protestors-against-wall-street.html

I’m beginning to wonder whether the right to assemble is effectively dead in the US. No one who is a wage slave (which is the overwhelming majority of the population) can afford to have an arrest record, even a misdemeanor, in this age of short job tenures and rising use of background checks.

Now at least in New York (and I hope readers in other cities will chime in) the right to assemble seems to be pretty much a dead letter. I was in Sydney during the global protests against the Iraq War, and I was told that the New York demonstrations (which were already hindered by typically lousy winter weather) were pretty much blocked by the police. Protestors were tying to gather at the UN, and the cops put up a cordon at Second Avenue. The result was the turnout was far lower than the number who tried to show their opposition and were stopped.

The latest New York City protest is OccupyWallStreet. Even though its turnout last week fell well short of hopes (the estimates from the group were that 2000 participated; the New York Times suggests numbers more like “hundreds” but the photos from the 17th make figures larger figures seem plausible), making it a nuisance level demonstration rather than a major statement, the powers that be seem to be trying a bit too hard to prevent it from getting traction.

The organizers were using Twitter to promote participation and visibility. And so Twitter intervened. From AmpedStatus:

On at least two occasions, Saturday September 17th and again on Thursday night, Twitter blocked #OccupyWallStreet from being featured as a top trending topic on their homepage. On both occasions, #OccupyWallStreet tweets were coming in more frequently than other top trending topics that they were featuring on their homepage.

This is blatant political censorship on the part of a company that has recently received a $400 million investment from JP Morgan Chase.

The simplest and most basic element of democracy is protest, i.e., the right to assemble and the right to free speech. It’s the lifeblood of a free society. And, because of this, it has always been the main target of those in power.

This is such a dangerous thing because it seems many Americans don’t understand the value of protest, don’t even understand what democracy is. Conservatives, in particular, see democracy as mobocracy and so protests are nothing but mindless mobs (although, they make exceptions for their own protests such as the Tea Party). If we don’t protect democracy, democracy can’t protect us.

I was discussing the issue of unions with some conservatives.

Unions are one of the most basic expressions of the right to assemble. The unemployed and the working class and the 99% in general don’t have the money or political clout to compete as individuals with the wealthy elite as individuals. Plus, the wealthy elite have lobbyists, think tanks, front groups, astroturf, etc. Most of the big money donations are probably done without transparency. Even SuperPACs which are supposed to be transparent have a loophole that allows anonymous donations. Karl Rove’s well-funded SuperPAC is mostly funded by 3 anonymous sources. Even unions can’t compete with that. Plus, there is the problem of average union members trying to compete their unions under grassroots control. Millionaires and Billionaires don’t need to worry about grassroots. They can buy the appearance of ‘grassroots’ if they so desire.

The lower class are at a severe disadvantage. If you have little money, your only power is grassroots solidarity and your only voice is protest. This is where strikes come in, the practice that has created more rights and protections for workers than any other practice in US history. But various things disempowered unions earlier last century.

Using anti-communist rhetoric, the rich and powerful turned average Americans against unions and against the working class in general. No one wanted to be working class any more. Politicians and pundits began preaching about protecting the middle class. But who were they supposed to be protecting them from? The rich who were outsourcing their jobs and stagnating their wages? Of course not. The middle class apparently was being protected from the dangerous working class. This is ironic considering most of these so-called “middle class” people were in reality working class. With all of this, the neocons and social conservatives were able to transform the war on poverty into a war against the poor.

A good example of how unions lost power is in Anderson, Indiana. The strikes in Anderson were very tense and the population was divided. Eventually, GM took their business out of town and the union got blamed. That is the power of big business. They can move their factories all around the world. They can even move their factories to countries that have no worker protection at all. Workers don’t have that kind of freedom. Even to this day, former GM workers are being punished by big business. One factory that located in the area refused to hire former GM workers. Another factory nearby refused to hire any workers from Anderson.

As the middle class shrinks and good jobs become scarce, workers have even less power. People have to pay the bills and feed their families. Without jobs, workers join the unemployed and eventually join the homeless. Strike-breaking and union-busting has become very successful. It’s risky for workers to put their necks out when they are at such a disadvantage. The average worker has no easy way to organize and be heard. The mainstream media is owned by the same corporate conglomerates that own the factories. Workers these days can’t win no matter what they try.

Nonetheless, people can only be pushed so far. Even the anti-union and anti-poor rhetoric starts to be dissatisfying to many Americans when they experience an economy ruled by big business. As the middle class shrinks, more Americans find themselves in the same lot with the working class and the poor. It’s hard to scapegoat a group of people when you have become a part of that scapegoated group.

This is where the 99ers came in. They spoke the inconvenient truth that even the Tea Party didn’t want to face. Then there were also the protesters, mostly left-wingers, who earlier protested Wall Street. Both of these groups were largely ignored or only given brief mention. But now the 99% movement has created a movement that seems to be taken hold with their Occupy Wall Street protest. It also seems the 99ers and the unions are beginning to join the 99% movement which is forming it into genuine grassroots populism. These aren’t just liberal college students with too much time on their hands. These protests are filled with the working poor and the unemployed, and it’s also filled with the former middle class who have lost jobs and houses. Basically, the 99% is all of these people, i.e., all the people besides the 1% of wealthy elite who control this country and dominate the economy.

After so many decades, average Americans seem to be waking from their slumber. I suppose this is how the Populist Era began. Most of those in the Populist movement were ordinary Americans. Before the economic problems following the Civil War, average Americans believed in the American Dream and the ideal of the free market. But the rhetoric of politicians stopped being convincing. Rhetoric can’t feed your family or pay your bills. No one saw the Populist movement coming, not even those involved. One particpant observed that it was like a wildfire that lit the whole country all at once. We seem to be on the verge of such a change right now. The polling and demographics have been pointing toward change for a long time, but maybe the tipping point is finally getting near.

We’ll see…

The War on Democracy: a simple answer

I have a relatively simple thought I want to share about democracy. It’s somewhat in the context of my recent thoughts about Thomas Paine’s vision of America, but it’s directly inspired by my having just watched the John Pilger’s documentary ‘The War on Democracy’.

Democracy is a potential that has yet to fully manifest in American politics and in international politics, partly because the US and other global superpowers have often gone out of their way to crush emerging democracies. Watching Pilger’s documentary, I became aware that it’s not an issue of creating the right political system or the right economic system. Merely having elections doesn’t a democracy make. A political system can’t be free. Only people can be free. This is also why a free market makes no sense. Many systems can be claimed as free, but the measure is whether or not the people are free. A system can’t make people free. Only people can demand their own freedom and they must do it collectively (freedom for all or freedom for none). And only free people can make systems that serve freedom.

This is why partisanship and ideological debate is meaningless. It doesn’t matter what inspiring rhetoric is spewed by a politician even if well-meaning. It doesn’t matter what argument can be made for why any particular system should work better. Everyone has there own arguments that they are convinced by… and yet such debate and ideological posturing hasn’t led to real democracy. What is forgotten is that a system isn’t an abstract model to be enforced onto people. A system is created by people. A system merely represents the way people relate to one another.

Democracy is ultimately more about how an entire society (in all aspects, on all levels) functions and not just about politics. If there isn’t grassroots organization in communities and in workplaces, then there can be no democracy. Grassroots organization directly relates to egalitarianism because such foundations of democracy can’t operate in a class-based society. And a class-based society will always exist where there is inequality of wealth and power, an inequality of opportunities and justice, and inequality of freedom and rights.

In our present global society, we have a class-based society that maintains its power and wealth through constant class war (and often actual war as well, along with coups and propaganda). In America which is the wealthiest nation in the world, a quarter of the population lives in poverty while a small percentage controls most of the government, media, and means of production. It’s corporatism because there is no clear division between the public and private sectors. A revolving door exists between big business and big government. That is the tricky part because no single person or single sector or single anything can be blamed. It’s a whole class of people who are in collusion, whether directly or indirectly, by shared interests. Getting rid of one aspect would just shift the problem to another aspect. Limiting the power of corrupt politicians would just increase the power of corrupt capitalists, and vice versa. It’s a social problem, not a political or economic problem.

Arguing about ideology just ends up helping to perpetuate the problem. We have to look at it on the level of real humans. This means we have to begin with empathy and compassion. We can’t just think what will help me and my own. Rather, we have to consider what will help all. It may seem naive, but it’s the vision that Paine wrote about and it’s the vision that inspired the American Revolution. Paine saw this as not just a battle for Americans gaining national self-control. What Paine hoped for was a global revolution that would spread from country to country until all people were free. When the US government (often with the support of Americans) attack other countries claiming to defend their own freedom, they are actually destroying their own freedom. The greatest insight Paine had was that we can only have the rights we are willing to allow others. Research shows that even the rich are better off in societies that have less economic inequality. The wealthy elite have been waging a class war, but they don’t realize they are destroying the society they are a part of. No walled community will keep them safe forever.

It’s not about just blaming the rich. The elite are able to rule because the majority allows them to. People have to demand freedom which is a hard thing to do in a society whose population is kept ignorant and isolated. All people need to wake up, rich and poor alike. Class war can’t be ended by more class war. We must end the ignorance by increasing the sharing of knowledge. We must end isolation by creating a strong sense of community where people understand that there fate is tied with the fate of all. Changing society is probably a lot easier than it seems. Fear and apathy is what holds us back. If people were to wake up for just a moment, to see clearly with their own eyes, to feel fully with their own hearts, society would transform over night. The problems of society are right in front of us every day. We walk by pretending not to notice, pretending to be mature adults with our cynicism and realpolitik.

We, as a species, are at a critical juncture. We either collectively wake up and embrace democratic values (which simply means caring about other people) or we’ll keep going down this path of collective self-destruction. But few people want to face the obvious, to see the writing on the wall. The answer is simple, assuming people actually want an answer. It’s a choice between caring or not caring… between caring about others, all others or not, between caring about society or not, between caring about the environment or not, between caring about the fate of future generations or not. You can always choose selfishness and greed, you can always choose ideological righteousness or ethnocentrism, but your neighbors and your grandchildren will suffer horribly for your sins… and, depending on how long you live, you might get the opportunity to suffer for your own sins as well. If we don’t change our ways, the inevitable results won’t be desirable even for the richest of the rich. I don’t envy future generations.

Then they came for the trade unionists…

Here is something that has been quoted many times before, but it deserves being quoted many times more.

First They came… – Pastor Martin Niemöller

Timbre Allemagne 1992 Martin Niemoller obl.jpgFirst they came for the communists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

– – –

If only people understood those words, we wouldn’t have all these problems that continue to plague us.

People look around the world and think other people’s problems aren’t their problems. Who cares about the poor who are exploited and oppressed in other countries? Who cares about the working class and the unions? Most people see those who are different as the enemy. To business owners, the workers are the enemy. To non-union workers, union workers are the enemy. To well off whites, poor minorities are the enemy. To poor Americans, immigrants are the enemy. To fundamentalists, social gospel Christians are the enemy. Et Cetera. And history just keeps on repeating.

I was reminded of what Niemhöller wrote because of the recent attacks on unions by Republicans and corporations. Unions have been greatly disempowered since the Taft-Hartley Act and since the Reagan administration, but still even in weakened form they are the only defense the working and middle classes have left in fighting against the ever growing corporatism in America. Of the top 10 campaign contributors, all are corporate PACs besides 3 which are unions. With the unjust elimination of ACORN, the poor and working class need the unions more than ever. Organizations like unions and the former ACORN help inform the public about important issues and help to encourage the poor get to the voting booths.

There is one very important thing to note from the Niemöller quote. The Nazis didn’t go after Jews right from the start. No, they first went after the Communists and unions. The Nazis had to first eliminate the groups that represent average people, the groups that are the pillars of grassroots democracy. Once they are eliminated, any other group can be freely attacked without the possibility of organized resistance. Just look at Wisconsin right now. Besides unions, there is no other group that could organize average Americans to such an extent. Unions are the very last defense. Unions don’t just defend their own workers. Unions, in defending the working class, defend the rights of all.

I was recently reminded of a fact most people don’t know. Check out these maps:

Party Affiliation (2009)From ’08 to ’10

State of States Political Party Affiliation, 2008

State of the States Political Party Advantage Map, 2010

Many states (such as in the South) that people think of as solidly Republican in reality aren’t that solid at all. In conservative states, a divide exists that doesn’t isn’t found in liberal states. Poor people in conservative states tend to vote Democratic whereas the rich tend to vote Republican (however, both the poor and the rich in liberal states tend to vote Democratic). So, how do Republicans maintain control of states that have populations mixed between the two parties? It’s rather simple. The rich Republicans control the politics, control the media, control the corporate contributions. The organizations that represent the poor are few and getting fewer.

Here is an article about 2006 voting data and a map of unionization:

Want to know why Democrats won the election? Because union members and their families voted for them.

Here’s the breakdown – non union members split evenly according to the CNN exit polls 49% to each party. Union members went 64% Democratic, and 34% Republican.

This actually underestimates the case, because unions are more than half of the Democratic ground game. It’s not just that union members vote Democratic – it’s that union members work for Democratic candidates and against Republican ones. They knock on doors, they organize, they phone pool. Any decent union has a hardened corps of organizers from their day to day work, and around election time those guys fan out. They are tough, experienced, don’t fear rejection and are mostly solidly working class.

If you look at a map of the US by union membership, like the one above, what you’ll see is that it looks awfully familiar – where unions are strong, Dems win. Where they aren’t, they lose or struggle.

The South, in particular, has a long history of disenfranchising the poor and the minorities (both of whom vote Democratic, of course). Most Americans don’t vote because most Americans feel disenfranchised from the entire political process. This perception is partly true and partly false, but the corporate media wants people to believe it because the continued dominance of the rich is dependent on this perception. If this perception of disenfranchisement falters even for a moment, protests and revolutions (or, at least, political upsets) can happen.

I’ve often heard conservatives (including democratically elected politicians) criticize democracy calling it mobocracy (two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner). Let me break down this criticism. So, who is this ‘mob’? It’s the masses, the general public, the average American, the majority of adults who feel so disenfranchised that they don’t vote. Conservatives are afraid of the majority because they know the majority doesn’t support their views and policies (see: ). Conservatives are afraid of grassroots democracy like unions because they know grassroots democracy won’t benefit corporations.

One argument conservatives give is that unions have already served their purpose. Conservatives will initially try to deny what unions have accomplished, but when that fails they’ll argue that there is nothing left for unions to accomplish. However, from my liberal perspective, unions are the only thing stopping our society from returning to 19th century capitalism. So, what exactly was 19th century capitalism like? There are some positive examples like the Shakers (which is a socialist model of capitalism that conservatives don’t like) and there are many negative examples like the following (from my post ):

Each mining camp was a feudal dominion, with the company acting as lord and master. Every camp had a marshal, a law enforcement officer paid by the company. The ‘laws’ were the company’s rules. Curfews were imposed, ‘suspicious’ strangers were not allowed to visit the homes, the company store had a monopoly on goods sold in the camp.
The doctor was a company doctor, the schoolteachers hired by the company . . . Political power in Colorado rested in the hands of those who held economic power. This meant that the authority of Colorado Fuel & Iron and other mine operators was virtually supreme . . . Company officials were appointed as election judges. Company-dominated coroners and judges prevented injured employees from collecting damages.
[The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-14, pp. 9-11]

I personally don’t want to return to a society where such capitalist systems existed. I’m fairly sure most Americans wouldn’t want to return to this either. And it’s good to keep in mind that this kind of capitalism (or similar variations) still exists in other parts of the world where unions don’t exist or don’t have as much political influence. So, I think it would be unwise to dismiss the role unions play in our society. Our grandparents and great grandparents fought and died for the rights we take for granted.

– – –

– – –

Ignoring history (which is never a wise thing to do), what can we say about unions in our present society? For example, does allowing teachers unions to have collective bargaining lead to negative impact on the public education system?

– – –

Anyway, how much power do unions actually have? A picture is worth a thousand words. Totals by Sector from OpenSecrets.org:

lobbying expenditures vs. campaign contributions

If money talks, politicians are listening to louder voices than unions.

Even so, unions are more likely to get heard by Democrats.

Top Democratic and Republican Donors in 2010

Top Overall Donors to Republicans:

Elliott Management (a Hedge fund company)
Koch Industries (note: the billioaire who is the main financier of the Teabaggers)
Every Republican is Crucial PAC
Associated Builders & Contractors
(so-called) “Freedom” Project (a Republican PAC)

NOTES: Top Republican supporters are billionaires, contractors, and hedge funds…and keep in mind this applies to the Teabagger movement as well. They are supported by the same billionaires, contractors, and hedge funds.

Top Overall Donors to Democrats:

ActBlue (composite of many, many small, grassroots donations)
Intl Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
Laborers Union
Machinists/Aerospace Workers Union
EMILY’s List (composite of many, many small grassroots donations)
Plumbers/Pipefitters Union
National Assn of Letter Carriers
Ironworkers Union
United Auto Workers
United Transportation Union
American Postal Workers Union
UNITE HERE
AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America

NOTES: Top Democratic supporters are unions and grassroots donors.

Seems to me the contrast is really quite sharp: Billionaires vs. working and middle class.

Where unions are strong, do they make a society better or worse? Here is from a post I wrote comparing the US and Germany:

In this video, there was one particular point about Germany that stood out. Germany is 1/5 the size of the US and yet has the second highest trade surplus in the world (after China). They’ve accomplished this while having higher rate of unionization and higher pay. Interestingly, the US economy was also doing better when unionization and pay was higher in the US.

Unions in the US are considered socialists even though they represent the working class. In Germany, it’s required for worker representation to be half of board members of companies. In Germany, the industrial and financial sectors are highly regulated keeping jobs from being outsourced and ensuring main street benefits rather than just wall street. According to conservative ideology, this kind of socialist practices and union power should destroy the economy and destroy innovation and yet the complete opposite is the result.

This seems to support Noam Chomsky’s arguments. Chomsky thinks the world would be a better place if workers had more power to influence the companies they work for and influence the economy they are a part of. As a socialist liberal, Chomsky genuinely believes it’s good to empower the average person. It would appear Germany has done exactly this and has become immensely successful by doing so.

A major factor I discussed in that US and Germany post was about income inequality. Here is a graph showing both the data of union coverage and inequality:

Union coverage decreases inequality chart

For what it’s worth, here is a study about unions in three comparable countries:

In particular, unions tend to systematically reduce wage inequality among men, but have little impact on wage inequality for women. We conclude that unionization helps explain a sizable share of cross-country differences in male wage inequality among the three countries. We also conclude that de-unionization explains a substantial part of the growth in male wage inequality in the U.K. and the U.S. since the early 1980s.

– – –

I just responded to some comments from one of my previous blog posts () which touch upon a central issue in American politics. Here are my two responses:

I agree with you about the misleading notions of American “conservatives”. It would make life easier if they used a different term to label themselves. Looking at the history of Western conservatism, American conservatives don’t seem all that conservative. In Britain, the conservatives are the Tories. In early America, Tories defended Britain against the radical revolutionaries. I find it odd that American conservatives worship the founders who were radicals. Thomas Paine inspired the entire revolution and his writings were as liberal as they get.

I was reading Henry Fairlie’s view on Toryism. I realized that traditional conservatism more closely describes Democrats than Republicans. Democrats are the ones interested in conserving our present system. On the other hand, Republicans attack our present system. And, as you note, their fantasies about the past are actually radical visions that would entirely remake American society. They don’t want to conserve anything. If American conservatives actually wanted to conserve the past, they’d first have to read something other than revisionist history.

My suspicion is that the idiosyncrasy of American conservatism makes a bit more sense when taking into consideration the psychological research done on ideologies. Brain scans show that conservatives tend to have a larger part of the brain that deals with fear. Other research shows that conservatives have a stronger disgust response toward anything unusual or improper (such as rotting fruit).

America is unusual in that the status quo of our society isn’t the power of a particular church or of a royal lineage or of a specific ethnicity. The only status quo we have in this country is that of change. Ever since the first Europeans came here, it has been endless change. At a fundamental level, conservatives hate change and so American conservatives hate the status quo of the society they were raised in. They would like to create a status quo that never changes which, oddly, would require radically changing the present status quo. Conservatives seem like hypocrites because they are conflicted by their own psychological predispositions. In the US, they can’t win for losing. The country was founded on a radical liberal vision and has continued to radically change ever since. To be an American conservative is to hate the founding status quo of America.

(note: I admit ‘hate’ is a strong word. Let us just say conservatives are strongly conflicted by the founding status quo of America.)

I’ve just started a book titled Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye. It’s very fascinating. It’s odd that I don’t recall having learned much about Paine in my public education or even in various documentaries I’ve watched about early America.

There seems to be a love/hate relationship with Paine. His writings were what inspired the American Revolution and probably what kept it from failing, but his vision was so radically democratic that he fell out of favor with many of the others in the founding generation who just wanted to create a new ruling elite (which essentially is what they did).

It’s very interesting that this radical vision is at the heart of what defines America. Paine wanted to end slavery, wanted Native Americans to keep their land, wanted women, blacks, and the poor to have as much power as rich white men. He wanted America to become an example of genuine freedom that would inspire revolution all over the world. Paine was a bad ass. His vision is radical even by today’s standards.

America would not exist without Paine’s far left democratic vision. He inspired the revolution, inspired people to keep fighting, inspired people to support the fight for independence in all ways. The American people, especially the lower classes, were fighting for Paine’s vision of America. Paine dedicated his whole life to the cause of liberty. He never made any profit from any of his writings. He risked his life many times and even fought hand-to-hand combat. He was a hardcore revolutionary. He didn’t grow up with privilege. Unlike the most of the Founding Fathers, he was born working class and was an immigrant. Paine believed in the American Dream before there was a country called America.

Paine is the reason conservatives are endlessly outraged in America. Like many in the founding generation, conservatives are scared shitless about the vision that Paine proposed and that vision still exists as a seed waiting to sprout. Paine failed because the rich white males of the time were too afraid to embrace a truly free society. The Populists in the late 19th century attempted again to achieve that vision, but once again the ruling elite coopted the revolutionary energy for the purposes of the corporate elite. Now, we once again face the potential of Paine’s vision. People once again begin to remember what inspired the founding of this country in the first place. Those in power and those on the right will do everything they can to squash democracy. Everyone understands that democracy is the most dangerous vision that any human has ever conceived.

Maybe you’re right about liberals tending to focus on freedom from. When considering radical freedom, we can only know the past from which we are trying to free ourselves from. We can’t know where radical freedom will lead. It’s an experiment. Paine explicitly thought of America as an experiment. If you want safety and security, then you can’t have freedom. That is the hypocrisy of what America has become. Paine realized that even the ruling elite could only have as much freedom as everyone was allowed. Paine knew that the only way to have democracy was to have an educated public and the ruling elite knew the only way to control the masses was to keep them ignorant. But control can never lead to freedom.

Even the data proves this. In societies with high economic inequality, there are more social problems (see: ). The rich may be relatively better off than the poor in such a society, but the rich in such a society are relatively worse off than the rich in a society that has more equality. The rich people in an unequal society have, for example, more health problems (probably from the stress of living surrounded by poverty, crime, and social conflict).

Paine understood this centuries ago. The ruling elite at the time dismissed his radical vision. And the ruling elite today continue to dismiss his radical vision. Yet his radical vision remains. The potential of America continues to be wasted because of those who have power don’t have vision and those who have vision don’t have power. Paine began the revolution and the revolution is still happening. The reason America has never stopped changing is because a large segment of American society has always refused to give up on the vision Paine first described.

Many might consider Paine to have been naive for actually believing in freedom. But dammit I wish there were more idealists. The only thing that makes ideals unrealistic is the cynical ruling elite that always stands in the way. Why is democracy considered naive? Why is freedom seen as a threat?

To this day, the conservatives still fear the masses of the poor and minorities. If you look at the demographics of the Southern states, they actually aren’t solidly Republican by a long stretch. If all the poor and minorities voted, Democrats would win by a landslide in the South and all across the coutnry. Conservatives know this and that is why they do what they can to destroy organizations like Acorn and unions that represent the poor and disenfranchised. Most Americans don’t vote because the entire history of America has been about the ruling elite disenfranchising the masses. Even when they do vote, their votes might simply not be counted as happened in Florida. It’s fucked up.

If Paine was here, he’d start a new revolution. Paine was a Marxist revolutionary before there was a Marx. He realized that the fundamental issue is always class war. It was so when immigrants first came to America, many of whom were political dissidents, oppressed poor people, and indentured servants. And it’s still true.

– – –

Let me finish by pointing out a couple of things related to those comments.

First, here is a passage from the book I mentioned above (Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye, Kindle location 1129):

“in all countries where the freedom of the poor has been taken away, in whole or in part, that the freedom of the rich lost its defence,” he insisted that “freedom must have all or none, and she must have them equally.” Paine was not naïve. He knew freedom could be dangerous, but he pointed out that “if dangerous in the hands of the poor from ignorance, it is at least equally dangerous in the hands of the rich from influence.” Dismissing neither possibility, he suggested ways of addressing them. To prevent ignorance he recommended education. And to prevent political corruption he again demanded democracy: “numerous electors, composed as they naturally will be, of men of all conditions, from rich to poor.”

When people fear mobocracy, what exactly do they fear? Is it fear of the possibility of radical freedom that democracy envisions? Or is it fear that one’s vested interests would be undermined if everyone had equal education and equal opportunity? It’s true that ignorant masses are easier control, but a society can’t simultaneously serve both the realpolitik of control and the ideal of freedom. More importantly, Paine understood that to try to control others meant endangering one’s own freedom. A person can only have what they are willing to offer to others.

Second, the comments above (right before the quote from Kaye’s book) are from a blog post of mine () that touches upon this same issue of fear and mistrust of democracy. My point in that post is that this conservative response is based on an attitude of not having faith in the average American and not having faith in the strength of democracy. As such, conservatives don’t have faith in the fundamental vision of the American experiment. Here is how I ended that post (and with it I’ll also end this post):

The unions did manage to win in certain ways, but the liberal vision of the working class was integrated into the Federal government. Eventually, the Democrats became the party for unions and for the poor. This altered the dynamic causing the class wars to be less clear, especially as class has been mixed up with race and culture. The Democratic party has done some good things for the working class and so that is why the poor working class is loyal to the Democrats to this very day. The vision of Democrats is that the average person can actually be served by his representatives in Washington. The vision of liberalism is that democracy is strong and not easily destroyed.

Conservatives are less confident. They see democracy as constantly threatened and that is why they are much more partisan in their support of big government. It’s also why conservatives support big military despite claiming to be against big government. Conservatives live in fear of democracy being destroyed. Enemies are everywhere. The enemy threatens both from outside (Russia, Islamic terrorists) and from within (Communist witchhunts, social programs, gun rights). Conservatives don’t trust any governments. They only trust our own state government to the extent it might protect us from foreign state governments, but idealy they’d love to live in a world where state governments didn’t exist at all or else had very little power which means they wish they lived in early America.

My above commentary was inspired by this comment:

http://blog.beliefnet.com/crunchycon/2009/09/i-was-wrong-about-5000-year-le_comments.html

John-in-Exile wrote:

It is fascinating to me to have “The Naked Communist” resurface, even as a second work of fiction by a newly rediscovered author. When I was in high school (1960 to 1963) I listened to a series of radio lectures by (apparently) W. Cleon Skousen which culminated in a pitch for his book, The Naked Communist, which was going to expose the evil plans of the terrifying international communist conspiracy. I bought the book and read it and found myself nagged by one question that stayed with me for years. The core presumption of Soviet communism was that people would work hard for the well-being of the state, even with no personal payoff. That always seemed unlikely to me–in fact so unlikely that I always believed that Soviet communism was destined to fall of its own weight. The communist conspiracies were inconsequential because the system was certain to fail. I was then struck by the odd perception that the people most paranoid about the rise of this doomed ideology were the conservatives who should have been the most confident of the ultimate success of the American economic experiment. They were instead the least confident and the most fearful of being overwhelmed by the Soviet system.

When communism fell at last I was not surprised because it seemed to me always destined to fall. Why was my liberal mind more confident of our system than the conservatives that constantly pronounced us doomed to fall to the evil Soviets?

– – –

Conservatives don’t seem to have much faith in the American people or the American experiment. I understand having doubts and I even understand being pessimistic. But, faith or not, do conservatives care more about their ideology or about real people? I know many conservatives do actually care. So, why do they keep voting for Republican politicians who again and again implement policies that hurt average Americans? What is to be gained by attacking unions that protect the working class, social services that help the needy, and public schools that educate the next generation?

– – –


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.

Iowa Politics & the Younger Generations

Sadly, almost the only attention Iowa gets is from Steve King. I truly hope people in other states don’t actually think King ‘represents’ the average Iowan.

What many people don’t realize is that Iowa is a rather moderate state. We are the real Middle America. The Midwest isn’t Deep South Lite. Yes, we have our share of the worse kind of Republicans, but the Midwest is also known for having a strong element of progressivism. Gay marriage is legal in Iowa and the legalization of medical marijuana was being discussed in Iowa recently.

Because of Iowa’s moderateness, the Tea Party has had a hard time getting momentum in here. The harsh rhetoric of fear-mongering and hate speech simply doesn’t appeal to most Iowans. Polarizing rhetoric works best in poor conservative states where there is great socio-economic disparity, but in Iowa we are relatively less class conscious and we have more of an attitude of respecting our neighbors. Here is from a Tea Party in Iowa:

http://okhenderson.com/2010/04/15/tax-day-tea-party-rally-des-moines-ia/

Doug Burnett, the event’s first speaker, urged the crowd to stress the positive rather than the negative.

“Let’s watch our words.  Thoughts become attitudes, attitudes become words and words become actions.  I hear too often people saying, ‘I’m scared.  I’m scared for my country. I’m scared for my way of life’ and I don’t doubt the sincerity of that sentiment, but I do question the accuracy of the words.

“Scared is negative.  It’s powerless.  It’s debilitating.  Scared is what happens when you wake up in the middle of the night to that bump, right?

“We’re frustrated.  We’re angry.  We’re concerned and trust me, many times I look at our elected leaders and I see the boogey man, but we are the Tea Party and we aren’t scared of anything.  Are you scared?  We don’t do scared.

“Think of words that are positive and accurate, like ‘I’m engaged. I’m empowered. I’m moved to action.’”

Maybe we moderate Midwesterners (excepting Rep. King of course) could be a model for the rest of the country. This is particularly true for the younger generations of Americans who have been turned away from politics because of all the divisiveness, negative rhetoric and partisan bickering. For example, Christian Fong is a young Iowa Republican who has started a bipartisan organizing campaign.

http://www.radioiowa.com/2010/04/15/the-iowa-dream-project-seeks-millennials-gen-xers/

Christian Fong says The Iowa Dream Project is targeting Iowans who’re considered Millennials or part of Generation X. “The goal of the project is twofold. One, it’s just to get young people involved and engaged.  I think every Iowan of any age will look and say, ‘Iowa’s going to be a better place when our young people are involved and engaged in making their communities better,’” Fong says.  “But secondly it’s about making the tone something that is inviting to the next generation.” 

Fong intends for The Iowa Dream Project to  foster discussion about ideas and solutions rather than to be a new place for finger-pointing. “I think the next generation often looks at kind of the mean-spirited kind of slogan shouting that masquerades as political discussion and they despise it,” Fong says. “They want nothing to do with it.” 

Today’s “Tea Party” rallies are a bit of a turnoff to most young people, according to Fong. ”You don’t even have to understand the issue to be able to hurl a slogan at the other side. It’s not respectful.  It’s not honoring your peers.  It’s not ideas-based. It’s really not what the next generation is looking for,” Fong says.  “Whether it’s a political movement, a political party or a candidate — if they want to win the next generation, they’re going to have to say, ‘In five or 10 years, this is what we want Iowa to be and these are the specific steps we’re going to have to take to get there.’”