Below are four suggestions for what ordinary citizens can do in our current and growing economic/political /social crisis. But first let’s place what follows in some historical context.
Back in the day — for me the decade-and-a-half known as "The Sixties" — we dissenters railed against the corrupt "System." It seemed clear to all of us in "The Movement" that all the institutions that affected our lives — government, academia, business, religion, the political parties, mass media, et al. — were rotten to the core, concerned mainly with money and power and not with the consequences of their policies and behaviors on ordinary people.
I know it seems crazy today, but we Movement-activist types really did believe back then that we were riding the wave of history that would sweep away all the old rotten foundations and institutions of the decadent System all across the globe. We radicals (going to "the root") felt we were laying the new foundations, creating the new counter-cultural institutions that would lead to more peaceful, productive, happy societies.
Our job as young "revolutionaries," we believed, was to kick out the traces propping up the System’s dry-rotted pillars and posts, so we could start the immediate reconstruction processes.
In our naÃ¯vetÃ©, it hardly registered to many of us that maybe the System wasn’t as weak as we supposed and might not appreciate our efforts to get rid of those power-supports. We didn’t fully anticipate that the ruling forces were likely to strike back, successfully, with all the fearful, angry instruments at their command in order to hold onto their preferred positions in the economic/social pecking order; these instruments included police brutality and even murder of selected radical leaders, e.g. African-American hero Fred Hampton in Chicago.
THE GAINS OF "THE SIXTIES"
Even given the massive conservative backlash that did come and even aware of the self-righteous mistakes we had made, many of us still feel good about the limited but very real successes in our amateurish attempt at cultural/political revolution: helping stop the immoral war in Vietnam, provoking investigations into widespread governmental and corporate and police corruption and brutality, creating alternative institutions including media sources for news and opinion, providing avenues for minorities and women to create their own power movements, and helping bring down the despised criminal in the White House, Richard Nixon.
Looking back on the scene now, it seems clear that the longest-lasting influence of the multi-splintered "Movement" was the tone of idealism and outrage and spontaneity and fun that influenced an entire generation of young people, and beyond.
So, other than nostalgia, why am I writing about an era that flourished decades ago? I think you know the answer: The System today in many ways is similarly corrupt and decadent and in need of a major shakeup. And, as in "The Sixties," those who rule the System are not going to simply abandon their perqs and power; it is up to us ordinary citizens to point out the corruption and malfeasance and to do something transformational with that power.
CHANGE WINDOW IS OPEN NOW
With the massive defeat of the conservative Republicans in the November election and the installation into the White House of a liberal-leaning centrist President, there finally might be a window of opportunity when popular political pressure could actually make a difference. We don’t know how long this window will be open to fresh air, so it’s important that we get our act together ASAP and move with solidarity to effect as much vital social change as we can.
Sometimes, we might be able to do this in concert with President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress, but because the hyper-cautious (and at times complicit) Democrats are often part of the problem, we may have to raise a mighty voice to get our point of view across in a Washington that is all too prone to wishy-washy compromise, a helleva lot of "spin," and lack of genuine progress for ordinary middle-class and poor citizens.
You may question my assumption that the System now is reminiscent of the corrupt System that was facing me and my contemporaries back in "The Sixties." Yes, our society has made great progress in some areas. But in others, it has regressed mightily. So, before moving on to plans for implementation, let’s take a look at a few of the various parallels from the two eras:
1. MISADVENTURING ABROAD
The U.S., no matter whether under Democrats or Republicans, is still prone to imperialist adventurism abroad. The Democrats tend to run a "soft imperialism" program, making sure the U.S. gets its way through firm diplomacy and economics, with threats of something harsher always looming in the background. The Republicans, especially during the CheneyBush reign of error, tended deliberately and openly to rush to the use of violence, warfare, torture and threats as a club: Accept our way or prepare for some good old-fashioned shock&awe.
The CheneyBush method is derived out of a belief that America is exceptionally beloved by God and charged to bring "democracy" and "free markets" to the populations of the world, whether they want it or not. The unexpected result of this mode of operation has been to demonstrate that hi-tech superpowers are limited in effectively exercising their strength against nationalistic, religiously-influenced, guerrilla-style opposition. Ignoring this fact and staying-the-course of various invasions and occupations has brought the U.S. into worldwide disrepute, devoid of moral authority (especially given its widespread use of torture), and stretching our military way too thin across the globe.
Obama is much more willing to use diplomacy and to build up solid alliances, but he has indicated that he, too, has adopted much of the neo-conservative militarist mindset about American exceptionalism and our supposed responsibility to police the planet.
In short, not all that much has changed from the Vietnam War-era when the U.S. couldn’t figure out how or whether to disengage from trying to run other nations’ business, and when it conducted an immoral war that wound up killing millions abroad and fomenting a political/generational civil war at home over the wisdom and costs of that misadventure.
Our illegal, immoral attack on and occupation of Iraq is similarly the crucible for a generation opposed to this unnecessary, self-defeating war, a war despised by two-thirds of the American people. Despite Obama’s announced 16-months-and-out plan, it’s not clear how, or when, he will remove the majority of the troops, and whether, even if they go, many of those American troops will simply move one border over to the quagmire in Afghanistan and/or re-deploy to other bases in the Greater Middle East. In fact, Obama has hinted that events on the ground in Iraq might prolong the occupation in Iraq.
2. A RESTRICTED, CORRUPT MASS-MEDIA
The corporate mass-media in newspapers, TV networks and cable, radio talk shows, etc. are even more prone these days to serve as little more than stenographers for governmental propaganda and spin; their tendency is to support conservative values and politicians in their editorials and choices of stories to run and highlight. (Olbermann and Maddow are exceptions to the mass-media rule.)
There are few mainstream investigative reporters and editors willing to take on the powers-that-be. Example: the New York Times waited until after the 2004 elections to expose the Bush Administration’s illegal domestic-spying operation, a story they had ready to go for a full year before that. Those few mainstream reporters who do color outside the acceptable lines run the risk of being fired or disciplined or being forced to resign. Most obvious examples: Dan Rather forced out at "60 Minutes" for pushing a story about Dubya’s questionable service at the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, or war correspondent Chris Hedges having to leave the New York Times after speaking publicly about the truth of U.S. policy abroad.
If citizens are to exercise proper oversight of their government, they need accurate information. These days, even more than in "The Sixties," citizens have to consciously search out alternative sources beyond the corporate mass-media to get a clearer fix on what’s really going on: For reliable information, the curious must look to the foreign media, to the handful of trustworthy investigative journalists in the mainstream U.S. press, to the satirists and comedians, and, most importantly, to unencumbered political analysis on the internet.
3. DEMS’ TIMIDITY & COMPLICITY
There are some definite exceptions, but by and large politicians in Washington, as always, seem devoted to watching out for their own interests and covering each others’ backs. Maybe that’s why they seem tone-deaf to what’s really agitating their constituents outside the D.C. Beltway.
Lobbyists hired by the powerful interests whose money rules in the nation’s capital have an inordinate influence on legislation, much more than they had in the Vietnam era. One shouldn’t expect this system to change much in the foreseeable future. Politicians feel the need to suck on the lobbyists’ teat because they need the money for their permanent election cycles. Public financing of those political campaigns, which might reduce the influence of special-interest money, appears to be dead in the water.
One would hope that now that the Democrats have increased their majorities in the House and Senate that they would be in the forefront of major reform. But the Democrats haven’t demonstrated much interest in any drastic alterations of how campaigns are financed, in fixing our compromised and corrupted voting system, in punishing criminal acts and war crimes of high officials by ordering impeachment hearings, in cutting off financing for the occupation of Iraq, in restoring Constitutional protections decimated during the past eight years of Republican rule in the White House, etc. etc.
Certainly the Congressional Democrats, and President Obama, will serve average Americans better than when CheneyBush ruled the Executive Branch. But the Democratic leaders, Pelosi and Reid, on key issues tend to be overly-cautious accommodationists rather than true fighters for significant change.
I’m prepared to be delighted by being proven wrong, but it appears that the "change" promised by Obama and the Democrats may be measured in small, incremental doses in the next four years, thus protecting the ongoing System, when what is required is a massive overhaul and reform.
Just look at the humongous bailout of the financial system by the federal government. We’re heading fast toward a major ’30s-like Great Depression, with a half-million job-holders losing their positions each month, and an economy that could well grind to a disastrous near-halt as more businesses go belly-up. Billions of dollars are passed out here and there to financial institutions to stabilize the capitalist System, but there is no effective oversight in place to verify where all that largesse is going. We know that precious little of it is filtering down to ordinary American homeowners trying to pay their mortgages, workers laid off, small-business owners forced into bankruptcy, etc.
4. ACCOUNTABILITY "OFF THE TABLE"
And, most galling of all for hard-pressed American citizens watching their stock portfolios and IRAs and pensions shrink daily, there is rarely any accountability for those who got us into the various disasters:
Congress’ obscene deregulation of the financial institutions with no oversight provided. The war-of-choice and occupation in Iraq. The authorization and sanctioning of torture as official United States policy by the highest officials at the White House and Pentagon. The turning of our beloved Constitution into little more than a "quaint" scrap of paper. The saddling of the middle-class and poor (and their children and grandchildren) with massive debt by financially bailing-out Wall Street but giving ordinary citizens, including auto workers and other blue-collar working stiffs, little more than crumbs of social services and tax relief in return.
It appears to be the same ol’ same ‘ol: rescue the rich and powerful — those "too big to fail," those "too important to fail." One would think that the Democrats, the party of the middle-class, would use their rare opportunity to alter the priorities, to enact major reform, to break from the corrupt politics of the past, to bring criminal charges against the malefactors to keep future officeholders and CEOs from feeling they can get away with anything.
But there is no real movement for impeachment, for war-crimes prosecutions, for CEO demotions or firings, etc. Instead, those who created the messes are left in place or are given enormous "golden parachutes," pardons are granted, laws are changed to cover the asses of the miscreants in charge. The lesson to the unscrupulous movers-and-shakers seems to be: Just keep doing what’s always been done; you won’t suffer any major consequences, and the taxpayers will meekly bear the burden of the massive bailouts of your companies.
WAITING FOR OBAMA
It’s possible that I’m being much too hasty here. Obama isn’t even sworn in yet. In spite of his political career as a centrist pragmatist with generally liberal leanings, maybe circumstances will force him in another, more progressive direction. (Good sign: Obama is forcefully supporting the workers occupying their Chicago factory because their pensions and benefits disappeared when the owners suddenly closed the plant. Obama wants to find a way to make them whole.)
Maybe, like FDR, Obama will seize the day in this crisis-filled time to lead the Democrats, and the country as a whole, in truly significant, sweeping social/political/economic change. But I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to happen.
We need a social/political revolution in this country — and we progressives must work ceaselessly to make this happen — but we may have to get used to incremental change, at least in the first few years of the new administration. At the very least, after eight years of regressive, disastrous rule, Obama’s America will be moving in the correct direction.