The centre cannot hold: Yeats and 2017 disintegration

William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” the year after World War I. It’s better known for the line “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” which definitely captures 20th century war and progress. I was re-reading it, and felt that parts of it, in particular the first stanza, hit way too close to home in 2017.

Here is the full poem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

Resistance: if not now, when?

CNN reported a few hours ago the following:

Senate Democrats are weighing whether to avoid an all-out war to block President Donald Trump’s upcoming Supreme Court pick, instead considering delaying that battle for a future nomination that could shift the ideological balance of the court, sources say.

Democrats privately discussed their tactics during a closed-door retreat in West Virginia last week. And a number of Democrats are trying to persuade liberal firebrands to essentially let Republicans confirm Trump’s pick after a vigorous confirmation process — since Trump is likely to name a conservative to replace the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

After a full year of Republicans blocking any Supreme Court nominee, the Democratic minority is considering doing none of that, in order to preserve the filibuster for some fight down the line.

This is all deeply troubling whether you are moderate, liberal, or leftist. The idea that this is different because Scalia is a conservative justice is absurd, considering that Justices Breyer and Ginsburg are well over 75 at this point. Deciding to cement the 5-4 split for an indefinite amount of time (years? decades?) while mass protests are already far beyond small concessions certainly shows the side of the Democratic Party that explains their inability to defeat the most unelectable person in living memory last November.

It’s the underlying sentiment, though, that bothers me. Politician or protester, it is a dangerous assumption to think that there are further opportunities down the road. A few uncomfortable truths establishment liberals aren’t going to tell you, but are on the table:

  • Republicans control all of Congress, the Presidency, and a large majority of state legislatures and governorships.
State legislature party control, post-2016 elections (NCSL)
  • This includes almost all the key swing states that Clinton lost (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida). These states also had competitive Senate elections, which are also state-wide and have the same voting infrastructure as presidential elections.
  • It is clear that voter suppression was a huge factor in races at all levels in 2016, and states that wish to increase such efforts are not going to face Justice Department scrutiny anymore.
  • Thus, 2018 and especially 2020 could very well be, in the absence of strong resistance, basically unwinnable for anyone not right-wing- independent, Democratic, or otherwise.

The idea that everyone should wait out Trump’s first term, which was a big idea on Jan. 20, is pretty much dead by now. It’s clear that nobody really knows what the US political structure will be in Nov. 2020.

So we reach the familiar Hillel quote:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14

The resistance has already begun. Don’t assume the future will be what you want or need it to be. Fascism of any type and degree has never respected democracy, and used it as a weapon to silence opposition. If you don’t like what’s being implemented now, stopping its enactment is a far better idea than waiting for some point down the line when it can all be repealed.

The #MuslimBan, broken promises, and the Great Default

Tonight, a lawsuit by the ACLU stayed the executive order that aims to ban immigrants and refugees from an arbitrary collection of nations for varying amounts of time, from a few months to indefinitely.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-26-57-pm
From Bloomberg here

The ban was expected. That it was extended to green card holders (permanent residents) was surprising. Thus in addition to new refugees and family members on travel visas, you have this case at LAX:

One detained traveler was an Iranian woman who’d held a green card in the U.S. for five years and whose citizenship swearing-in ceremony is in two weeks, Cunnings said.

The woman has an 11-month old child with her who is an American citizen.

A CNN feature on the chaos surrounding the creation and implementation of the order includes this passage:

Friday night, DHS arrived at the legal interpretation that the executive order restrictions applying to seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen — did not apply to people who with lawful permanent residence, generally referred to as green card holders.
The White House overruled that guidance overnight, according to officials familiar with the rollout. That order came from the President’s inner circle, led by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. Their decision held that, on a case by case basis, DHS could allow green card holders to enter the US.
Fundamentally, this order is a series of increasingly large promises being broken. People who followed the rules, did everything conservatives have asked immigrants to do, get nothing for their sacrifice. Translators for the US military who risked their lives in exchange for residency, nothing. Religious and ethnic minorities fleeing the Syrian civil war and ISIS, nothing. And people who were promised permanent residency, nothing. America has always been a land of broken promises, but for 2017 this is particularly sharp sting.
This is the beginning of what I’m calling The Great Default, where any prior promises and commitments made before Jan 20, 2017 should be considered conditional and uncertain. Climate agreements, trade agreements, foreign alliances, ethics rules, civil liberties, religious freedom. It’s a fire sale. The immigration ban is telling every other country that the US is willing to do things without consulting its own government, let alone yours. For those that say the system will ameliorate Trump and make a trade war with China impossible, well, what about now? Bannon and Miller overruled the part of the government that actually has to implement policy. They don’t want to learn, they want to extend their will. Bannon has been given a major national security position, letting those who said “it’s just an advisory position!” know that yes, that too is conditional.
There is no honeymoon period. Get the sandbags, close the storm windows. Nothing is sacred.

Resistance v. Collaboration in the Trump Era

Since the election of Donald Trump this past November, the term “resistance” has been everywhere. His policies must be disrupted and a new, stronger opposition must coalesce. While Democratic political leadership pledge resistance, the facts state otherwise.

When an oppressive force takes over a country, the opposition gravitates towards two ends of a continuum. On one side stands resistance, the other, collaboration. Erik Loomis correctly points out that building trade unions want to collaborate with Trump, despite the existential threat to the environment and unions themselves. It’s as if the Reagan administration never existed.

But it’s not just the conservative unions with memberships that swung towards Trump in the Rust Belt. Progressive champions are also guilty. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, who liberals usually speak fondly of, both say they support the utterly unqualified Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary. All but one Democratic senator confirmed Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis for Secretary of Defense. This despite Mattis having what can only be called bloodlust; a military man who can’t wait to kill foreigners. These same senators will in a year’s time decry what Mattis does in office, but they chose to approve him. This is not resistance, not even close.

When the Germans invaded France in 1940, every person had a choice to make. Many rejected the Nazi occupation. They banded together to undermine enemy control, through intelligence gathering, noncooperation, and sabotage. The French Resistance was integral to Allied victory and the end of the Nazi state.

Others decided to seek peace and coexist with the occupation. Philippe Pétain, perhaps France’s greatest living military hero, turned the destroyed republic into a puppet regime based in the city of Vichy. Some collaborators were authoritarians eager for the chance. But others thought they were doing noble work, shielding France from the world of the Nazis. They were willing to work with a power that history knows was irredeemable.

Because the middle ground is treacherous between resistance and collaboration, accommodation, whatever you want to call it. For the last half century, activists have been trying to change the Democratic Party from within. This strategy failed in the past, and some Bernie supporters and Black Lives Matter activists are trying again today. But today’s activist can easily be tomorrow’s apologist, as social movements are co-opted. Given how much progressive work and resources went into campaigns like Warren’s senate run, it is disturbing to see her choice to work with Trump. If there is widespread belief that Trump is an illegitimate, dangerous precedent, confirming his extremist nominees and having chummy meetings to talk about pipeline jobs is not the way to go.

Those in the streets, blocking streetcars and shutting down intersections, they see Trump for what he is. To have a “wait and see” approach is a privilege many do not have. Women, people of color, LGBTQ+, indigenous peoples, they are under attack now. Accepting Trump as legitimate is to sanction their oppression. Green card holders and dual nationals are being denied entry to the US, creating international chaos and showing that whatever promises were made prior to Jan 20, they should be considered null and void. The progressives in Congress have rolled over and confirmed the officials who will defend the refugee ban. They had no problem spotting the neo-fascists an administration, and then maybe trying to fight that once it was built.

Total resistance is the only way forward. But the front lines need dedicated people. And as much as the Women’s March was a show of opposition, it seems to be headed towards more symbolic resistance that colors within the lines and plays friendly with authority. The economic and political structures that hold Trump and his ideology up are never under threat.

Just after the election, the Daily Beast, a ‘progressive’ media outlet tied to Chelsea Clinton, wrote this:

But if he is our next president, we will not question his legitimacy or hope he fails.

Instead, we will count ourselves members of the loyal opposition—loyal to the United States of America and opposed to the policies proposed by the president-elect during his campaign. And we will reflect on what has led so many of our fellow Americans to embrace such a messenger.

How does that strategy look today?

 

#WomensMarch, and avoiding 2020 daydreams

Years down the line, we will remember the Women’s March as the first major. In Washington D.C. the Women’s March was triple the size of the inauguration, and that wasn’t even the largest march. Total turnout, which included large marches in Toronto and London, was at least three million.

So the Occupy argument has been disinterred from the crypt. Where does this momentum go? Where should it? I have Facebook friends on each end of the spectrum. One side focuses on turning the movement into a 2020 presidential election victory. The other is more concerned with grassroots organizing and resisting Trump’s policies on the ground.

I will be talking about the first group. I have two major issues with those that want to talk about upcoming elections.

Firstly, those that can make the election a priority are exercising their considerable privilege. Put simply, there are people in America with the identity and resources to weather the coming storm, and there are those that cannot. If you get you healthcare through the ACA, or have undocumented relatives, the point of focus can’t be 2018 or 2020. It has to be now.

The second is the idea that long-term planning for a presidential election is useful. One counterargument: the most meticulously-planned campaigns in history were that of Hillary Clinton. And she lost the party primary once and the general election once. Preparation is not the same thing as support.

Everyday resistance builds up morale and capability. Boycotts and sit-ins will do more in the long run than finding precinct captains and creating yet another PAC.

This is not like Occupy, in that there is a clear thing to oppose- a very unpopular president with specific policies to target. The Obama administration always split activists and creating the appearance of incoherence. Social movements are in a position to be more effective. And if the movements are useful, participants will see traditional political action as an extension of that.

How liberals shielded Obama from accountability, and lost everything in the process

As I write this post, the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States is only hours away. The preceding sentence is bizarre, and I’m glad time travel is impossible because there is no way we could explain 2016-17 to people of the past. But we are here. This is the fashionable time to meditate on Barack Obama’s legacy, and solidify thoughts on his presidency in a way that will be picked apart by later historians. What is clear is the very few people got the president they wanted. The political right, of course, but everyone from moderate to leftist has mixed feelings. There will be those that focus on Obama as a symbol and paper over policy matters, which end up the most positive-sounding.

But the past eight years have been deeply troubling, because things could progress in one area and regress in another. Harry Cheadle of Vice.com sums up some of these issues:

The Obama administration continued the bailing out of banks and big business in the wake of the financial crisis. But almost no bankers were ever prosecuted for their role in the collapse of the economy; meanwhile, a program meant to help homeowners whose lives were wrecked by the crisis was poorly supervised and ineffective. Those efforts to close Guantanamo were defeated not just by hardline Republicans but by the White House’s own lack of support. Before Obama defended some undocumented immigrants from deportation, he deported millions of others, to the outrage of advocacy groups. Though Obama claimed credit for working to “reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties” during his farewell address, he was perfectly content with the surveillance state before the Snowden revelations forced him to publicly change his tune. His administration continued the long trend of expanding executive branch power, a topic that concerns both the left and libertarians. In 2008, he may have been the anti–Iraq War candidate, but he was not been philosophically aligned with the broader antiwar movement as president, as his expansion of killer drone operations indicates. His administration also supported brutal Saudi Arabian military operations in Yemen—when Obama canceled an arms deal to the Saudis last month, it struck many as not nearly sufficient.

Cornel West, who drifted farther away from Obama over time, becoming one of the big-name endorsements of Jill Stein in the 2016 election. His retrospective (eulogy?) is similar, though with that idiosyncratic tone that West has. He points out something very important, which I want to focus on today. He writes:

The reign of Obama did not produce the nightmare of Donald Trump – but it did contribute to it. And those Obama cheerleaders who refused to make him accountable bear some responsibility.

American politics may on the surface be about ideology, but at the core it’s a fight between two camps that disagree with each other on everything, at least publicly. When a president comes into office, their supporters have a choice to make. They can be demanding, seeking accountability for campaign promises. Or they can rally around the standard and play defense against the other side. Most Obama supporters decided to do the latter, focusing their criticism on Republicans who opposed him. From this emerged a range of standard excuses. Congressional inaction. Republican media. I know people that to this very day expected Obama to “take the gloves off” and push forward no matter what. It’s hard to say this ever happened- almost every major policy change was a half-measure. Wall Street regulation was limited and written with too much special interest influence. The ACA didn’t address pharmaceutical drugs, and didn’t provide a public option to prevent insurers from hiking up premiums each year (which they have done reliably).

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was balanced by intervention in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. His executive order regarding undocumented communities wasn’t that expansive, and previous presidents had done similar or larger things in the past. Government surveillance expanded, whistleblowers were punished (Chelsea Manning had to attempt suicide twice to get a sentence reduction, several years into her unusually long sentence). As much as Obama’s election was historic, local and state police shootings of unarmed people of color has been constant. And despite the issue being something that the executive could really address through the Justice Department, federal action hasn’t done much tangibly. Obama has commuted sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, but most of the scaffolding of the War on Drugs is unchanged.

The congressional obstruction excuse has been omnipresent, always changing the debate away from Obama. Rarely have the cards been on the table. Yes there are obstacles, but is he doing all he could? We can isolate Obama from the Republicans in some cases. He headed the executive branch, and had hundreds of thousands of people who influenced every part of American life. Much of this was, in practical terms, not restrained by Congress. Yes there were all the hearings, but how much of the monolith was taken out by them?

I voted for Obama in 2008, didn’t in 2012, and haven’t been a registered Democrat since 2009. I felt the Democratic Party was fundamentally corrupted in the same way the GOP is. Anna Eshoo, my congresswomen in northern California, authored legislation to give pharmaceutical companies much longer exclusive periods for biologic medicines. Many new medicines are biologic, and include some of the top anti-cancer drugs. They also cost an unimaginable amount of money and are unaffordable to most people, even if they have insurance. Generic biologics will take forever to get on the market, and people are going to die- more now that the ACA will be gutted. The excuse for this sort of work by Democrats is that there are pharmaceutical and biotech companies in her district. That makes it sound noble, but it’s a lot simpler than that. Eshoo, despite being in a super-safe district and no opposition, took cash in exchange for human lives. No GOP obstruction, no political necessity. She cashed in her seniority to get that passed. I guarantee the liberals you know won’t mention her unless she has some sick burn about Trump.

The point of that story is that Obama is not unique. American liberalism is full of these same contradictions. And liberals feared that excessive criticism would tank the administration and give the GOP more power. Well, since Obama took office, the Democrats lost the House, then the Senate, and a Republican succeeds him despite all that.

If progressives ever want a politician to live up to half of what they say, they need to be willing to torch their allies as well as their enemies. Obama faced no real consequences from backpeddling on promises and shifting steadily rightward. Those of us who lie farther to the left would like the help. We called the Obama administration for what it was, good and bad. If there is no accountability, how do you expect to win elections? How can you run candidates that people actually want to follow? How can you laugh at Republican dysfunction while ignoring your own?

The right and left held Obama accountable, with varying degrees of accuracy and fairness. The middle that identified most with candidate Obama in 2007-08 was asleep at the switch. That may have made all the difference.

Austerity destroys progress

So we enter the final week of the Obama Administration. The 2016 election saw key components of the Obama coalition either not turn up or defect to Donald Trump. Mixed with a very underwhelming response to GOP voter suppression by Democrats, Republicans won both the presidency and several easily winnable midwest Senate seats. Whatever the outgoing President was, in symbol or ideology, there is a good chance that much of his planned legacy will be overturned.

What I will remember about the eight years of Obama is the same in America as in other countries. Progressive politics cannot exist in a climate of austerity. The two are mutually exclusive, and failing to oppose and undo austerity will doom progress on economic issues.

On the domestic front, politics was dominated by the budget sequester, cuts to welfare programs, a complete lack of methodical spending on infrastructure, and harsh austerity at the state and municipal levels. Some of this austerity is now decades old, such as freezes on cash payments to families, but most of the action on these issues was towards regression.

Now, the traditional defense is that Obama wanted to reverse austerity, but conservative opposition in Congress prevented that. But I think many people are now looking back and thinking of how much more could have been done at the executive level, but was not. Obama only had two years of a Democratic Congress, but he had six years of a Democratic Senate. He couldn’t be impeached until early 2015. So there was a space for radical action, with the understanding that improving things for working people would translate into political support given time, but that wasn’t in the cards. Obama, and the Democratic Party, are too institutionalized to reverse austerity. They take too much cash from the banks and corporations that benefit from privatization and deregulation. I didn’t expect the kind of economics that showed up in first drafts of Democratic policy proposals. The GOP obstruction defense is a smokescreen, distracting from the shortcomings of Democratic leadership.

And as we have seen in other countries, opposing austerity works. The 2015 UK election saw Labour act much like the Democrats- supporting a less-ghastly version of austerity than the opponents. Their destruction in Scotland by the SNP came because the latter actually talked about social spending rather than budget deficits and cuts. This middle place- not going whole hog for austerity but also not opposing it- has no political base. No party can hold onto power with it, because their results aren’t good enough to keep support, and they’re vulnerable to conservatives outflanking them. Donald Trump’s anti-austerity points on trade left the Democrats surrounded. In the end, that flank was enough to swing several states to Trump, and cause Democratic Senate candidates to underperform and lose in places like Wisconsin and Indiana.

There is no such thing as a progressive austerity. And in the end, what will we fondly remember Obama for, thirty years later? What is his legacy as a progressive? As a president?