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Progressive Irrelevance?


As long as progressives continue to grant the basic premises of the “war on terrorism–that it is a “war” and that we’re fighting “terror” – it will wage a losing struggle. If voices who question the basic reality of events remain isolated–voices like those of the ousted Cynthia McKinney–we are doomed to an era of complete silence. The dictators in Washington are in a great hurry to do away with this country’s freedoms and numb us to a new American militarism. If progressives treat them as political actors who will go along with the normal rules of liberal contest, it’ll continue to be blindsided by the next shocks in the works.

After 9/11, many progressive commentators agreed on the need for greater security at airports, more scrutiny of who we let into the country, and greater checks on them once they’re in. Shouldn’t the dysfunctional immigration department be reformed? Should we really treat the eighty-year old Iowa grandmother with as much suspicion as the young Middle-Eastern male? Molly Ivins wrote on November 15, “When in doubt, hold them–fine.” There is a clear progression from the elusive craving for security to rampant fear that can be preyed upon to annihilate our freedom. Right after 9/11 was the time to question–despite the fear of being labeled unpatriotic, of being called heartless enough not to share in the grief of so many–and openly dispute the official narrative, instead of settling for less insidious forms of racism.

The Wall Street Journal reported on August 8 that the Justice Department plans to detain more American citizens as enemy combatants. That could be any of “us.” The recent annual meeting of the American Bar Association was riveted on the trashing of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The lawyers were complaining, But they could declare any of “us” an enemy combatant, and we’d have no rights. They had seemed pacified when the government reassured us that after all the military tribunals were for non-citizens only. Once you get on the slippery slope of granting the basic premise–that any person on American soil can be detained without due process in the normal judicial system–then the sequence is inevitable from suspected terrorists to illegal aliens to dark-skinned citizens to all of “us.”

Since the apocalyptic night of election 2000, when Bush sat huddled with his creepy mother and father, and later told Gore that Bush’s little brother Jeb had assured him that the state of Florida was his, perhaps nothing has felt as calamitous as Representative McKinney’s engineered removal. She had the audacity to question the reality of the enabling event, Bush’s foreknowledge of 9/11, and his friends’ economic gain from it. So they pumped in money from outside the state, created a viable “Democratic” candidate, accused McKinney of taking money from terrorists (if anyone receives money from Arab-Americans, they’re done!), and a popular five-time incumbent from a black district is gone! How do you combat something like that with the normal rules of politics? This is a new era, and people are fooling themselves if they think that playing according to their rules is going to get this gang out. If they have to, they’ll simply steal elections.

Progressives advocate that the war on Iraq can still be stopped; our voices need only be heard. Corporate fraud is bound to lead to a rewriting of the fundamental rules of business. Robert Reich can lead a progressive campaign to victory in Massachusetts, setting a model for the rest of the country. Green Party opposition will keep that term-limit promise-breaker Paul Wellstone honest. The truth is that once progressives vigorously endorses a candidate–Villaraigosa in Los Angeles or Green in New York – that might as well be the kiss of death! It’s so easy to split black and Jewish and Hispanic voters. Progressive have not come up with a way to deal with this racial manipulation. Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers assured us a couple of years ago that the new progressivism was bound to win out–without taking positions that offend anyone.

But what have progressives in congress delivered? Paul Wellstone voted for the Patriot Act, along with 97 others. (Does anyone outside Minnesota remember what he looks like? Of course, if he had been visible on the national scene lately, that would mean he was surely a goner, like McKinney.) Russ Feingold, the lone Senate holdout against the Patriot Act, recommended confirmation of Ashcroft-Himmler because he wanted to extend an “olive branch” to the president. Feingold deferred to the tradition that cabinet members ought not to be rejected on ideological grounds, arguing that “we should not start now.” He thought that the judiciary committee could keep Ashcroft in check–not when you’re dealing with this gang.

Maxine Waters did have her police brutality forum in Inglewood on August 19–but she hasn’t been too visible for the past year. Is it any wonder that Jesse Jackson, Jr. seems to be in seclusion, probably petrified by the right-wing wrath that fell on his father? On Hardball recently, Dennis Kucinich, Studs Terkel’s dream president, fell all over himself to pacify former drug czar Barry McCafferey. What’s wrong with saying that you’re “anti-war,” especially if you’re someone who’s lately built your reputation on promoting a Department of Peace?

So who do we look to for outspokenness? That great upholder of constitutional freedoms, Bob Barr, of course–except that now he’s gone too. He tried to stand up against scrapping Posse Comitatus, against the national ID card. So did Dick Armey, that other great defender of liberty. Retiring Armey has protested the national ID card and TIPS, and the war against Iraq in terms that no Democratic leader has matched. Senator Biden wants only a piece of the action, to feel that he has been “consulted” when the decision comes down.

The left is in tatters. Christopher Hitchens picked a fight with Chomsky and others who he felt “rationalized” terror and were soft on “Islamic fascism.” Denouncing the “fascist sympathies of the soft left” Hitchens wrote that “at least the missiles launched by Clinton were not full of passengers.” He bought into the administration’s ridiculous rationale that there is inherent rage against Western freedoms: “What they [Islamic fascists] abominate about ‘the west’ . . .is . . .its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state.” Hitchens forgot about the real fascists at home. He grants the basic presuppositions of the war on terrorism. How are cause and effect, “us” and “them,” to be separated when we created, to a large extent, political Islam because we didn’t like Arab nationalism or Arab socialism or even Arab liberalism?

Richard Falk wrote after 9/11 that “The war in Afghanistan against apocalyptic terrorism qualifies . . .as the first truly just war since World War II.” As late as December 24, Falk was writing the following na?ve words: “The Bush presidency has . . .recognized the challenge with clarity and mobilized society for a necessary and prolonged struggle. It . . .defined the mission in relation to terrorism rather than Islam and it made a serious effort to reassure the Muslim minority in America that their rights would be protected.” Does he still feel that way, now that we are on perpetual war footing to remake the world? A caller recently asked Ralph Nader on C-Span if he thought that 9/11 would have happened had Gore been president. Acting astounded, Nader wondered if the caller was implying that Bush had anything to do with 9/11.

The left is massively intimidated; it cowers under the grief trap, not wanting to be outdone in shedding tears. Once progressives accept that we need to do something in response to “terror” (even if only proportional and justifiable), the game is effectively over. To say that 9/11 was the greatest spectacle ever put on would be offensive to the choir, used to hearing soothing multicultural clich?s and the constant drumbeat of hope–a progressive reordering of priorities is just around the corner.

So while down in Crawford Bush and company plot a dual October surprise–war on Iraq and terror at home–it’s best to concentrate on the rising liberal stars in congressional races (even though all of that can change in an instance, under the new postmodern rules of engagement–a point that the prairie populist left seems unable to comprehend) or the passage of reforms to fight corporate fraud.

The left doesn’t understand that the terms of the debate have changed. You don’t contest Hitler with genteel argument, grounded in the hope that things will turn around soon enough if liberal politics is given enough of a chance to play out. They’ll do whatever it takes to defraud a McKinney out of existence. And that’s the fate awaiting all critics, because progressives helped make it unacceptable to question that there is a “war” on “terror.”

For some on the left to say that this is about oil is too easy; ditto for pointing out the Carlyle connection. This is about something far darker in the American soul. That is why this assault against humanity is so catching, has such potency with the flag-wavers. Until prgressives comes to terms with this dark force, it’ll have little effect on American sensibility.

By rejecting as “conspiracy theory” revelations about government foreknowledge and complicity in order to preserve its rationalist credentials, the left has granted credibility to the enabling device. That’s a losing move. The way to understand Bush’s presidency is to look at him as a forceful dictator bent on doing as much harm as quickly as possible, not as a bumbling right-wing fool who chanced on the presidency due to mishaps in Florida. But the left has not yet accepted this basic truth; and so its advocacies and prescriptions are flawed. Would it be beyond Bush – during an emergency, of course–to end Social Security and Medicare as we know it? The stock market is not always going to be down. This idea is not going away, but the left is lulled into thinking that Bush can never risk it with the people. He will. The left thinks of Bush as an idiot. He is, but only in the sense of not being intellectual. He is the smartest fascist to come down the pike in a long while, and has completely outwitted the opposition. At every step in this evolving dictatorship, the left has been one step behind; so who is slower witted? The groups who let Hitler take power thought they could control him; one after the other Hitler proved them all wrong.

This is what the left has to ask: Will the ordinary political process get rid of Bush, can it slow down his assault? If the answer is yes, see exhibit A: Cynthia McKinney. If no, then what is the alternative strategy? If normal anti-war activism, such as what was seen during Vietnam, doesn’t work as a practicable analog, then what is the way to go? Do you challenge a fascist dictator with rallies and demonstrations (that is, if people are not afraid of being put in jail)? Will the left continue to underestimate Bush’s shrewdness? It wasn’t just the accident of hanging chads and butterfly ballots that let the Bush brothers manipulate the result in their favor. The left doesn’t want to throw the legitimacy of the political process into question, and so it treads softly. The mostly identity-politics driven left, with its few cautious moves toward including suburban progressives in an economic strategy that doesn’t alienate anyone, is at a loss to deal with the fascist upsurge. Do you contest fascism with mild, middle-of-the-road alternatives? For too long the left has encouraged the culture of fear to promote its social agenda. Now this vocabulary is easily being appropriated by the fascists.

If the left radically questioned the official presumptions, it would have to embark on a path of thinking that it has not really considered. Its diagnosis of the problem would shift. It would have to ask this uncomfortable question (not exactly conducive to letting one continue being a pundit on Fox or MSNBC): What is the role of the liberal opposition during a fascist dictatorship? What’s all the caution going to get us? If only there had been more voices like McKinney’s right from the beginning, it wouldn’t have been so easy to paint her as a fringe lunatic. Are today’s progressives much different than the mass media which crowed after the stolen election that “the system works” because there were no tanks in the streets?

Anis Shivani studied economics at Harvard, and is the author of two novels, The Age of Critics and Memoirs of a Terrorist. He welcomes comments at:


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