What the Fortune Teller?s Parrot Taught Me

The aftershocks of Israel’s inability to crush Hezbollah continue to send their political tsunamis round the globe.  After the ceasefire the Forward newspaper in New York said  Bush is bad for the Jews, meaning  Israel. The editorial in this influential megaphone of Jewish opinion stated that “Bush has been convinced by self-appointed spokesmen for Israel and the Jewish community that endless war is in Israel’s interest”. Forward  calls for regime change among the Zionists directing U.S. foreign policy. Hardliner unilateralists  out! Peace processors in! Bush “needs to hear in no uncertain terms that Israel is ready for dialogue, that the alternative – endless jihad – is unthinkable”.

It almost makes you feel sorry for Bush. He’s always been convinced that it was the loss of Jewish support that finished off his father in ‘92, after Bush Sr had publicly attacked the Lobby.  He vowed never to suffer the same fate, whatever it took. Now this, after all he’s done for them.

Will Bush bomb Teheran? I’ve never thought so. You know the arguments. The US Army is dead against. A US attack on Iran might prompt  Muqtada al-Sadr to lead a Shi’a uprising that would sever US supply lines from Kuwait. The US forces in Iraq might have to flee north into Kurdistan or bunker down in their desert bases.  But now well informed fellows in Washington say that an attack might well be in the offing. The War on Terror is the only card the Bush crowd has ever had that worked for them, and the only riposte from the Democrats is that they could play the same card better.

Though president Bush has now plummeted so far in public esteem that he appears to be deep, deep down in some well, the only reason we can see the top of his head is that he’s standing on the shoulders of some Democrat. By all rights the Democrats should be making their way to straight for the midterm elections with a light heart. Here we are at the end of six years of oppressive, often lethal mismanagement of the nation’s affairs. I shall not rehearse the milemarkers on this road to ruin. You know them well. But when the crowds lend an ear to what the Democrats are pledging, it turns the Bush-Cheney mix.

Here’s how, Anatol Lieven,  a fairly smart European journalist and sometime Washington liberal think-tanker recently described the current scene:

“The overwhelming consensus among political analysts here is that well before November 2008 the Bush administration will in any case have withdrawn US troops, if not from Iraq altogether, then off the streets and into secure bases in the desert. The Republicans are not fools enough to run in the next elections while the headlines each day report more US deaths in Iraq.

“As  to the wider issues of US world strategy, the almost identical approach of the two party establishments is easy to demonstrate. One only has to read the speeches and statements of the two figures who at present seem most likely to be the contenders for the Presidency in November 2008, Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton, and their closest associates.

“Both Clinton and McCain advocate early NATO membership for Ukraine, and have expressed strong hostility to the Putin administration in Russia. On Iraq, they differ mostly over the degree to which Clinton –naturally — has been far more critical of the Bush record so far. But both oppose early or unconditional withdrawal. On the latest Middle East crisis their words might as well have been drafted by the same speechwriter.

“Hillary Clinton states that: ‘I want us here in New York to imagine, if extremist terrorists were launching rocket attacks across the Mexican or Canadian border, would west stand by or would we defend America against these attacks from extremists?.. We will support [Israel’s] efforts to send a message to Hamas, Hezbollah, to the Syrians, to the Iranians… They do not believe in human rights, they do not believe in democracy. They are totalitarians, they are the new totalitarians of the 21st century.’

“In McCain’s words, ‘What would we do if somebody came across our borders and killed our soldiers and captured our soldiers? Do you think we would be exercising total restraint? Israel has neighbors on its borders that are bent on its extinction.’

“Both Clinton and McCain call for negotiations with Iran, but only on condition of Iranian surrender to US wishes, and with the military option as a threat. On spreading democracy in the Middle East McCain declares that: ‘The promotion of democracy and freedom is simply inseparable from the long term security of the United States.’In Clinton’s words, ‘human freedom and the quest for individuals to achieve their god-given potential must be at the heart of American approaches across the region’.

“…After almost seven years of interacting with intellectuals from the Democratic establishment (above all during my previous job at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, one of the centers of that establishment) I am afraid that [certain polling numbers are] only part of the truth. More important is the fact that if the bulk of the Democrat and Republican establishments speak the same way on foreign policy, it is because they think the same way. And of course the elites do not just react to popular views, they also profoundly shape them.”

I suppose, as so often has happened in the past, the last weeks of the election campaign will galvanize some Democrats into campaign bustle, though they are having to resort ever more ungainly artifices to sustain their illusions. It reminds me of the bit in Casanova’s memoirs where he has to pay intimate court to an rich but ugly widow and to summon up the necessary enthusiasm, has an attractive young woman positioned behind the widow, in his line of sight.  Ditto with the liberal Democrats who try to keep their eyes fixed on favored pin-ups of the very distant past, like FDR.

Though the numbers are dwindling, some people still go through their whole adult lives thinking that the next Democrat to hunker down in the Oval Office is going to straighten out the mess, fight for the ordinary folk, face down the rich and powerful.  I got off the plane in New York in 1972 at the age of 31 with one big advantage over these naïve souls. I’d already spent twenty years seeing the same hopes invested in whatever Labor Party candidate was on the way to 10 Downing Street.

By the time I reached my prep school at the age of nine, the first postwar Labor government was already slipping from power. Back in the summer of 1945, if any party was ever given a mandate, it was surely Labor, propelled into office by the millions who had spent the war years awakened by unusual circumstance – a familiar effect of war – to fresh awareness of the barely inconceivable incompetence and arrogance of the British upper classes and memories of the prewar Depression when the Conservatives ruled the roost. With one voice they said, there must be a better way.

The Tories thought they were going to win. After all, Churchill was presiding over defeat of the Axis in the war, and the apparatus of gerrymander was still in place, including an electoral register unchanged from 1935 thus rendering those in their twenties as disenfranchised as American felons today. University graduates and businessmen could vote twice. There were predictably archaic methods to undercount the overseas armed forces vote from troops overwhelmingly for Labor. But Clement Attlee’s Labor Party swept to tremendous victory.

When the dust settled, Labor had 393 MPs out of a total of 640, the greatest majority in their history, with the  Tories limping along with 213 MPs, almost exactly the reverse of what happened 38 years later when Thatcher trounced Foot and got a majority of 143, which she swiftly put to radical use. In 1945, with an invincible  majority of 146 and vast popular hunger for radical change, the challenge was great but Labor’s leaders — Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison and the others — rose and mastered it, managing successfully in the next five years to keep the British class system intact in all essentials. Of course the Conservatives savagely attacked the onset of “socialism”, but the “welfare state” had more to do with the war-time command economy than with any attack  on the dominion of capital.

Across the channel the French used their Marshall Plan handouts from the US to reorganize their infrastructure and plan the railway network the British now worship as they surge in a few hours from Paris to Marseilles. The British themselves, Miss Muffetts of propriety, paid off old debts and rejected  new ideas. French-style planning? “We don’t do things like that in our country,” Bevin scoffed.  “We don’t have plans, we work things out practically.”

My awareness of this first Labor government was limited, though I do remember my father telling me “we” – this was 1947 when I was six – now owned the railways. I was no early bloomer. A year later the British Special Branch, tapping my father’s phone as part of a continuous program of surveillance of the man, lasting from 1934 to 1954, monitored me urging him to come home to read me Christopher Robin, a conversation finally released into the National Archives in 2004 and perused by my brother Patrick, who swiftly reported the Christopher Robin request to me.

Christopher Robin! By the time he was seven John Stuart Mill was already re-reading Aeschylus, although he confessed later, he did not know what an emotion was until he was twenty, which shows  the downside of intellectual precocity.  We went off to live in Ireland, followed by the Special Branch onto the boat where, so the archives now show, they made “a discreet search” of my father’s suitcase, prowling through his socks and shirts in search of the Communist Master Plan, while 4,000 drunks heading home for Easter wondered why the ship wasn’t getting under way.

Irish politics, as ripe in intricate corruption as those of Naples or Bangkok, had scant relevance to the vices of the Labor Party or the Democrats of the United States. I returned to England for the late 1950s and 60s. Great was the rejoicing when, in 1964, Harold Wilson led the Labor Party to slim victory, ousting the Conservatives after 13 long years. Years of disappointment immediately followed, with a celerity that had to wait until 1993 to be equaled by the almost instant collapse of the Clinton administration as any kind of reforming force. By 1972 Edward Heath sat in 10 Downing Street.

Now I was nearly 30 and yearned for escape. I could see English politics stretching drearily ahead. After Wilson’s return there would be James Callaghan. After Callaghan, Michael Foot. After Foot, Neal Kinnock. After Kinnock…One day in the late summer of 1972 I had occasion to be in the portion of south London known as Balham. It was hot, and the streets infinitely dreary. I must get away, I muttered to myself, like Razumov  talking to Councillor Mikulin  in Conrad’s Under Western Eyes.

I turned in the direction of the subway station. A dingy sign caught my eye, in a sub-basement window. Parrot readings. I was puzzled. Surely it should be Tarot. I knocked, and the sibyl, in Indian saree, greeted me. She had tarot cards and a parrot, a method of divination with an ancient lineage in India. She dealt the cards. The parrot looked at them, then at me, then at the fortune teller. Some current of energy passed between them. The sybil  paused,  then in a low yet vibrant voice, bodied forth the future to me , disclosing what lay ahead in British public life. Her lips curved around the as yet unfamiliar words “New Labor”. Falteringly, raising her hands before her eyes in trembling dismay at the secret message of the cards, she described a man I know now to have been Tony Blair. I paid her double, then triple as, amid the advisory shrieks of the parrot, she poured out the shape of things to come.

Within a week, obeying the promptings of the parrot, I had booked a flight to New York and a new life. Ahead of me lay a vast political landscape, seemingly of infinite richness and possibility. Never for a moment have I regretted my journey westward. That parrot in Balham had read the cards correctly. It is probably still alive, and I’m sure that if I were to return for another consultation, it would cry out, “I could have told you so”, and cackle heartily as it described the blasted expectations raised by Democrats stretching from Carter to Clinton.

We approach the midterm elections; soon thereafter the great masquerade of Election  2008 will commence. There will, I can guarantee it, be once again hopes for change, courtesy of a Democrat. I will remain without illusions and I feel more will join me.  Like the Labor Party, the Democrats offer no uplifting alternative and, in this fraught world, not even the pretense that they differ in essentials from the Republicans in the way they propose to deal with the rest of the world.

I might even offer a maxim here: the greater the hunger for change, the more thunderous the popular cries for decisive, radical action, the more rapid will be the puncturing of all hopes, as though the whole point of the electoral exercise, of 1964 and 1966 in the case of Wilson, and of 1992 in Clinton’s,  had been to demonstrate to those foolish enough to have thought otherwise the lesson that all hopes and fierce expectations notwithstanding,  business will continue as usual.

It’s the same lesson European governments now regularly give European voters. The French vote against neoliberalism, despite the stentorian advice of the entire political establishment. The voters prevail, with a thunderous “Non!”  The political establishment, as represented in the major parties, pays no attention. Same in Germany, same in Italy, same in Britain. Same in the United States.

As is now widely recognized, most of all by the voters, there is no effective opposition here, any more than there is in the UK, where many Establishment commentators confide that they think Tony Blair has gone mad.  But if the parties are identical in their essential programs, give or take mini-swerves from the norm such as tactical environmentalism by the Democrats to keep Green and Hollywood money flowing in, then why is there such vitriol between them? Much of it is plain stupidity. Many people in middle age keep the prejudices of their youth intact. Here at CounterPunch we get, now and again, denunciations from some reader who has blundered onto our site, accusing of supporting the “ultra left Ted Kennedy”, or the “weathergirl Hillary”.  What we need from the political scientists is a fresh consideration of political constituencies and their material interests. The current maps are useless. The parrot did a much better job.

Footnote: The authenticity of the  episode in Balham will no doubt be questioned by parlor cynics. Accurate prophecy, particularly through  the agency of parrots, often excites vulgar derision. I do have a photograph advertising “Kili Joshylam Parrot  Reading Rs. 20/-“ which I took in Chennai last year, which I will be more than happy to give the board of enquiry.




Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.