You Remember It, Don’t You? An Incredible, Hope-Filled Year

March 1

Political race-baiting works in America, because racism is part of the cultural and historical furniture. In 1960, when Barack Obama’s Kenyan father married Stanley Anne Dunham, a white woman who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, 22 states still had laws forbidding interracial marriages. In 1967, an appropriate year since it was the “summer of love”, the US Supreme Court voided all “race hygiene” laws, still on the books in 16 states.

In 1988 Al Gore, running in the New York Democratic primary against Michael Dukakis, attacked the Massachusetts governor for supporting lax parole laws that a year earlier had permitted a convicted black murderer called Willie Horton to leave prison on a weekend pass. Horton used the opportunity to rape a woman.

Dukakis prevailed nonetheless and won the nomination. Then in the fall the Republican dirty tricksters began circulating photos of Horton, an identikit of every white’s nightmare about what a black rapist kicking down the front door would look like. The leaflets insinuated that Dukakis and Horton had been pretty much on a first name basis. The race card was effective and was a significant factor in Dukakis’ defeat by George Bush Sr. In 2000 George Bush Jr defeated John McCain in the South Carolina primary with the insinuation that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. (McCain and his second wife, Cindy, had adopted a child from a home in India run by Mother Teresa.)

Here we are in 2008 and the race card has made its inevitable appearance. True to the Willie Horton model, on February 25 someone in the Clinton campaign sent the Drudge website a photo of Obama in Kenya a couple of years ago, wearing a turban and what looks like a bedsheet pretending to be a nurse’s white uniform, though apparently it is Somali ceremonial rig. Obama’s team cried Foul. Maggie Williams, now running Clinton’s campaign, said Obama shouldn’t be a wuss.
Your middle name is Hussein and you run in a US election in 2008? Of course you catch flak. But these are only the early salvos, as the RNC slime squad runs profile groups to help them figure out what it can get away with. Already right-wing columns are pillorying Obama’s mother, an anthropology professor in Hawai’i at the time of her death in the mid-1990s, as a fellow-traveling, crypto commie slut and lover of non-Caucasians.

Obama’s wife Michelle, the candidate’s wife, is being portrayed as several hundred miles to the left of Malcom X, in large part because she said recently that owing to the huge response to her husband’s campaign for hope and change, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.” Cindy McCain has taken to saying that she for one has always been proud of her country. In the last debate Clinton called for Obama to repudiate Louis Farrakhan –a ritual Jesse Jackson knows well. Obama finessed the challenge gracefully, but the Republicans are taking up the theme. Late last week the Clinton campaign was leaking stories about support for Obama from the former Weather Undergound couple, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, both of whom became respectable fixtures in mainstream liberal Chicago years ago. That hasn’t stopped the Republican hit squads from painting Obama as a secret Muslim, channeling bomb plots from Osama–whose photo an NBC studio grip recently put up behind Obama in a news clip.

All the same, the race card is a tricky one to play. A fall face-off between McCain and Obama will target the crucial independent voters, many of whom will be put off by race-baiting. Attitudes have changed, even since the Horton era. A 2007 Gallup survey found more than three out of four Americans approving of marriages between whites and blacks. In 1994 less than half felt that way.

March 3

When I first came to America in 1972 I was astonished to find that the conservative cold warrior William Buckley had a television channel paid for out of public funds and reserved for his exclusive use. This was PBS, which alternated Buckley’s show with “Wall St Week”. In an effort at balance PBS offered the left’s point of view in Sesame Street. Buckley’s syndicated column was also featured in Dolly Schiff’s New York Post. I found him mostly unwatchable and unreadable, being 97 per cent predictable and disgusting in all his views, with a style intolerably loaded with affectation — fake English urbanity and pompous usage. He was the sort of writer who could never use the word “punishment” without sticking “condign” in front of it, the better to flaunt his stylistic credentials.

His staple was straight cold-war paeans to the unfettered glories of capital. It was all aimed at college-age conservatives. I doubt the rubes could endure him. Who would, when the alterative was Jimmy Swaggart in full spate?

It’s astonishing to read the funeral paeans from liberals, flush with homages to Beckley’s “urbane civility”. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, issues a warm eulogy in Newsweek. John Nichols echoes these kindly sentiments in The Nation itself. The supposedly left Portside site promptly reprints Nichols. What are these people thinking? All this is evidence of the decay of liberalism. Do they have any memory? Buckley wore urbanity like cheap make-up, badly applied. At the slightest challenge it disappeared and we were left with the hiss and venom of a  reptile. Coulter and the other yahoos descend in part from him. Here’s Buckley confronting the AIDS crisis with an advisory of Nazi lineage: “Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.”
Here are some lines from Buckley’s editorial on “Why The South Must Win” in the National Review in 1957:

“The central question that emerges is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes–the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. … So long as it is merely asserting the right to impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races, and so long as it does so by humane and charitable means, the South is in step with civilization, as is the Congress that permits it to function.”

So, farewell Mr Buckley. How wrong you were. How vile the tyrants and the wars you cheered for.

Footnote: Looking for some trace of a famous Cleaver-Buckley exchange, I did find this passage, in an interview with Cleaver by Henry Louis Gates Jr., , which ironically ran on PBS’s Front Line about a decade ago:

GATES: Was the civil rights movement a success?

CLEAVER: I think it was a success in terms of the goals that it espoused. That was to break down the color barrier in public accommodations, access to the institutions and things like that. But the big failure of the civil rights movement was that it did not have an economic plank because while we got access to schools and to Hot Dog Stands and all that, the burning issue right now is economic freedom and economic justice and economic democracy. The NAACP didn’t touch that. They had no plan for that. When Martin Luther King was turning towards the economic arena in Nashville supporting the strike of the garbage man, he was murdered. I applaud my country for the changes that we have undertaken in these areas of civil rights. But where the big problem still remains is with the economic system. If you would call a meeting today to talk about segregation, wouldn’t nobody come but Louis Farrakhan and David Dukes. But if you call a meeting to talk about the money, it would be standing room only. It wouldn’t all be black because the money is funny for everybody, right. That’s where the rubber hits the road; that’s what we’ve got to deal with.

March 5

The press is blaring tidings of a great Clinton comeback in Ohio and Texas last night, both states in which she had twenty point leads in late February. But in terms of delegates Obama is ahead by what appears to be an insurmountable margin. The only way Hillary Clinton can win the nomination is to savage Obama with calumnies, bloodying him to a point where the Clintons can turn make the case to the super delegates in the convention that in a race against McCain Obama has already been fatally wounded. It’s a course to which the Clinton campaign is now totally committed.

Obama has plenty to be rueful about. He managed the astounding feat of being on the defensive in Ohio about trade, at the hands of a Clinton. The history of the late 1980s and 1990s was the Clintons at the head of the Democratic Leadership Council, arguing that the free trade agreements were essential to America’s future. Ohio, devastated by job flight was treated to the spectacle of the Obama campaign failing on this very issue, because Obama shrank from making the full case against what Clinton did to working people in the 1990s. He could have slaughtered the Clinton record on Hillary’s disastrous effort at health care reform, on the trade agreements, on the welfare bill, on the well- documented fact that the people who did well in the Clinton era were the rich. He was too innately cautious to play the populist card and he paid the price.

March 13

Was there a medium-size right-wing conspiracy to nail Gov. Elot Spitzer, above and beyond  Gov Spitzer’s own diligent efforts in the same cause? It certainly looks like it. It’s clear that the feds started with Spitzer whose wire transfers led them to the Emperors Club, a prostitution business efficiently administered by a young 23-year old Blair Academy grad, Cecil Suwal on behalf of her 62-year old boyfriend, Mark Brener, from the high rise in Cliffside Park, NJ, with fine views of Manhattan.

The official story is that it was Spitzer’s efforts to break down a $10,000 transfer to an account fronting for Emperors Club that alerted clerks at his Manhattan branch of Capital One’s North Fork bank. A similar transaction at another bank where Spitzer had an account also supposedly twitched a red flag.  Banks have to report transactions of $10,000 and up to the Treasury Department. People not wanting to have their bank snitch to the Feds about their transactions routinely keep the sums below the red-light figure, and feds have told the banks to adjust their mandatory snooping to report $8000-plus sums, or sums that add up to $10,000.

Like innumerable other affronts to privacy, this reporting requirement began as a tool in the “war on drugs”, and now is part of the furniture of our lives. All the same, it strains credulity to believe that North Fork’s “suspicious activity report” on a well known and presumably valued client immediately aroused the interest of the IRS employee scrutinizing the hundreds of thousands of SARs churning through his computer in the IRS watchpost in Long Island. The official version has the IRS man noting Spitzer’s name, then passing the information up the food chain to the Justice Department, and the US Attorney’s office in Manhattan.

Instead of the banks being curious on their own, what if the Feds told the banks to report all of Spitzer’s wire transfers to them? It seems likely, and if so, we have here in outline a sting operation which raises another pressing question: who exactly was it who put Spitzer in touch with Emperors Club in the first place?

Spitzer’s role as the sole target in this recruitment of investigative and prosecutorial manpower since July, 2007, is evidenced  by the malicious insertion in the prosecutor’s indictment of a quote from the phone taps about his sexual preferences (reminiscent of Kenneth Starr’s detailed disclosures about the minutiae of physical transactions between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky); also by the fact that once Spitzer’s voice  had been captured on the tap, the FBI shut down the phone surveillance.

It’s hard to root for Spizer with much enthusiasm, beyond mandatory support for anyone facing political ruin and possible criminal charges for having sex with a consenting adult. It was extraordinary to hear the Mann Act, ancient weapon of racist bigotry against blacks, being brandished as a possible sanction against Spitzer for having paid for a prostitute to travel from New York to Washington DC. Spitzer, obviously a stewpot of psychic contradictions, was brimful of prosecutorial zeal himself, against prostitutes, also against convicted sexual offenders. It was Gov. Spitzer who pushed civil commitment into law in March 2007, legalizing possible lifetime incarceration for sex offenders, no matter what their original prison sentences may have been.

But Spitzer also frightened Wall Street, which was a good thing. There were plenty of very powerful financial institutions that craved his downfall and whose employees cheered wildly when that downfall appeared imminent. A little perspective is useful here. We are now well advanced in a campaign year where the prime candidates, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and John McCain have successfully avoided all substantive comment, let alone prposals for tough legal sanctions against Wall St firms for their subprime frauds.

A lawsuit filed by the NAACP on March 7, makes for instructive reading in this regard. The suit seeks to fast track the NAACP’s  federal class action lawsuit against Washington Mutual, Citi, GMAC and 15 other mortgage firms who systematically steered African American borrowers into predatory loans. The suit cites a 2008 study by United for a Fair Economy estimating losses of between $164 billion and $213 billion for subprime loans taken by people of color during the past eight years. This is thought to be “the greatest loss of wealth for people of color in modern US history.”

Major Wall Street operators created the housing bubble, fixed the system of bogus AAA ratings, kept the debt off their balance sheets  and prevented pricing transparency. As with  the .com NASDAQ bubble of  nearly a decade, there are perpetrators who should be facing criminal sanctions.  Wall Street has nothing to fear for its subprime frauds from the SEC.  But New York State does have the Martin Act, the most powerful criminal enforcement weapon in the country and one used to great effect by attorney general Spitzer. In January there were news stories about Attorney General Andrew Cuomo using Martin to go after the subprime corporate miscreants. Such an onslaught, with the backing of Gov Spitzer, was undoubtedly making Wall St nervous. Now Spitzer has gone. Wall Street has nothing to fear from Clinton, or from Obama who candidacy floats on vast contributions from Wall Street.

American presidential elections are mostly about keeping important issues off the agenda, whether it be US complicity in Israel’s atrocious crimes in Gaza, or the funds voted by Clinton and  Obama for the Iraq war now arriving at its fifth anniversary, or impeachment of a president destroying constitutional protections. Instead we get a sex scandal, freighted as always with hypocrisies far in excess of Spitzer’s own double standards, about which I trust we will one day get a book from Mrs Silda Wall Spitzer.

March 26

Suddenly everyone is having a “conversation”. The word has come of age. I see it bowing and scraping on the opinion pages and tv talk shows three or four times a day. Its formulaic sidekick is the equally irksome “if you will”, beloved of Wolf Blitzer, John King and the other tv anchors and correspondents. “If you will” is something between a sheep-like cough and a verbal tailwag, a signifier of decorum, itself a prime ingredient of the “national conversation”.

Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia about race  stuck pretty carefully to the unwritten rules of a national conversation, in marked contrast to the sermons of the Rev. Josiah Wright whose stimulating rhetoric has caused such extraordinary  affront –- if you will — to the conversing classes.

With Wright, Obama began by excluding him from the national conversation:

“…the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”

A “perceived injustice” isn’t really an injustice at all. It’s a figment –- if you will – of the paranoid black imagination. Israel is stalwart and the perceived horror – if you will —  of its siege of Gaza is not even to be mentioned, as against the perversities of Islam.  Then comes anathema, as pronounced by any conversationalist, divisiveness: … “Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems…”
Our tragedy is that we have three neoliberals left in the presidential race, at a time when neoliberalism has collapsed and life-giving divisiveness top of the Wanted list. I suppose, out of the three of them, I prefer Obama. McCain is an idiot and HRC wants Volcker, Rubin and Greenspan to lead a “high-level emergency working group” to recommend ways to restructure at-risk mortgages to help avert more foreclosures.

April 1

I flew home from London to San Francisco from Heathrow’s new Terminal 5, inhabited solely by British Airways. I flew on March 27, the day it opened. As the world now knows, this was a day of epic British humiliation. For weeks the British newspapers and television channels had been vaunting the marvels of T5: miles of baggage conveyors rushing luggage swiftly from check-in point through entrails of steel to airplane hold; the gospel of efficiency bodied forth in this new temple of modernism.

The trouble is that the British just aren’t very good at this kind of thing. In the case of T5 the planners had forgotten to create parking spaces for the baggage handlers. When the handlers finally got to the doors of T5 their security passes didn’t work. The few that managed to get through didn’t know where their work stations were. The baggage handling software had already failed. My two bags which I had complacently supposed were being whirled at tremendous speed to the Boeing 747 at Gate 38 in Terminal B had in fact joined a vast logjam in the center of the baggage maze. Everything came to a standstill.

But upstairs chaos was not yet apparent. BA’s greeters, soon to be the objects of vilification and physical threat, smiled sweetly. Since T5’s policy is not to have strident loudspeakers, there were no quacks of warning or alarm from the loudspeakers. It was 11.35am. I went off to Terminal B on a little railway, the sort that was cutting edge at SeaTac in the 1970s when optimists were writing about impending conversion of the war economy to the “social industrial complex”. There was almost no one in Terminal B. At Gate 38 I was the only person. No other travelers, no BA staff, just the quiet bulk of a 747 at the boarding port. Gradually the passengers mustered. In a movie this is where we would meet our characters: the noisy fellow who would panic and elbow the old lady; the lovers holding hands as they plummeted through the depressurized door; the unassuming Californi-based journalist, co-editor of a radical website and newsletter who in the end takes control of the 747 and brings it safely down.

By 4 pm we were boarded, wedged into seats so tightly crammed that when I dropped my book, there was no way to maneuver mybody to get a hand under the seat. There was the familiar wait for the tractor to haul the plane out to the runway; the familiar inaudible drone from the Captain. By six pm were in the air. We flew over southern Greenland. I was disappointed to see no signs of farming, amid newly benign conditions. We flew over Hudson’s Bay. There seemed to be plenty of ice. We flew over Tahoe. We were four hours late. No bags for most of us of course.

April 4

LARRY KING: The USS Jimmy Carter is being constructed. It will be the newest submarine in the fleet.

CARTER: And the fastest and quietest ship in the world.

KING: Now that has got to be…

CARTER: I’m very flattered.

KING: I know Mr. former president, there’s a lot of things to be proud of, but that’s got to be kooky.

CARTER: Kooky?

KING: I mean, kind of like kooky. You’re going to go and slam the champagne against it. It’s your sub.

CARTER: My wife will christen the submarine.

KING: Permission to board the Carter, right? They’re going to say that.

CARTER: Absolutely. You’ll be welcome, by the way.

Sums it all up, doesn’t it? Here we have an absolute disconnect between the rational human who has criticized Israel for its apartheid policies and the lunatic reveling in having his name painted on a lethal machine that could kill hundreds of thousands of people with a single detonation.

In the old days I would have ended with a pious paragraph or two about the pressing need to end the arms race. Not any more.  We’ll never stuff that genie back in the bottle. Every country should have a couple of nuclear missiles and, if they really want one, a nuclear sub.  You can get the sub from the Germans and put the missiles out for bid.

April 18

These past few months have been agreeably bad for Bill Clinton, disclosing him as a a corrupt lobbyist for top-tier scum, including Uribe’s blood-sodden gang of butchers in Colombia. His capacity for serial lying continues at full stretch.  Furthermore, he cannot stop opening his mouth, each time dropping his wife another couple of feet through the trapdoor of public disesteem.

Example; single-handedly, a week or so ago, he managed to reignite Hillary’s  Bosnian disaster, where she converted a pleasant outing into an anecdote of courage under fire unexampled since Audie Murphy took on a German battalion single-handed. Bill said that Hillary came up with this fictional packet because it was late in a long day and she was kind of tired and not thinking straight. So, what happens four hours later when that 3am phone call comes?

The bouncy charmer of January is now disclosed as a predatory lobbyist demanding outlandish sums for services rendered to an unalluring collection of patrons. The rewards are large. To take one example, committed to the Clinton Foundation is $131 million from Canadian mining czar Frank Giustra. Clinton flew to Kazakhstan with him to hunker down with Kazakh tyrant  Nursultan Nazarbayev, who leased Giustra valuable uranium mining rights.

One of Bill’s assets twenty years ago is that he looked so boyish – so unlike a fleshy southern pol , marinated in dirty money. It’s not the way he seems now. He looks like a sleazeball. His low character has caught up with him yet again.

April 23

A friend of mine who’s a librarian was recently reviewing job applicants. Asked his qualifications in library skills, one man  put “machine-gunner”. He was a vet who’d served in Fallujah. The library is in a state school which, last fall, had 650 such vets enrolled. The young man got the job, but soon became irked by what he saw as the trivial preoccupations of his colleagues and applied a job at a nearby police department. All over the country police departments are advertising for Iraqi vets. Three quarters of the way through the hiring process, the PD signalled to him that things looked good. Then, in rapid succession, three Iraq vets in the area were involved in very violent episodes: two murders and one suicide. The P.D.immediately called the young man in for a second psychological evaluation, then nixed him for the job. He’s 24. He can’t find anything satisfying to do and is thinking of reenlisting. He’s against the war.

Those violent episodes was just part of bringing the war home. It’ll be active on the home front for years to come. Just under one in 3 – 31 per cent – of those who’ve been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from brain injury or major depression and stress disorder or a mix of all these conditions.

Here’s how the figures add up. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have thus far produced 300,000 psychological casualties, 320,000 brain injury casualties, plus 35,000 (probably understated) officially reported “normal” casualties. This adds up to a total of 655,000 U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, an average of 130,000 Americans killed or wounded every year since the invasion. If the idea of 130,000 casualties for every extra year in  and Afghanistan gets out and infects the voting public, imagine the effect on the currently torpid national debate over leaving in 5 years versus 15 years!

May 3

Every few years New York City cops hear the growl of clear and present danger and subdue the threat with powerful volleys of lead. With Sean Bell, an African-American, in November 2006 the fusillade rose to 50 shots, deemed necessary by the men in blue to lay low Bell outside a nightclub in November 2006.

In Queens last week a judge ruled that the cops who turned young Bell into a sieve on his wedding day had been filled with most understandable apprehension though Bell  turned out to be unarmed. As usual  the cops walk and sometime later the victim’s family may get a settlement from the city. The important thing is that justice is seen not to have been done. Power needs the periodic buttress of irrational, uniformed violence.

The crowds protesting in Queens after Judge Anthony Cooperman let Bells’ killer go free a week ago were orderly, as instructed by an African American. “We’re a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down,” Barack Obama , said when asked about the case by reporters in Indiana. “Resorting to violence to express displeasure over a verdict is something that is completely unacceptable and is counterproductive.”

Spoken like a president of the Harvard Law Review, at least in this era! In fact Obama’s white rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, put more juice into her press release: “This tragedy has deeply saddened New Yorkers – and all Americans. My thoughts are with Nicole and her children and the rest of Sean’s family during this difficult time. The court has given its verdict, and now we await the conclusion of a Department of Justice civil rights investigation.”

Obama is now well advanced along the path of reassurance, where  each candidate nearing the White House make clear their fidelity to the standard of irrational violence. As with McCain and Mrs Clinton this year he has affirmed his willingness to wipe out America’s enemies with nuclear bombs and missiles, though he draw some rebukes for saying he was not in favor of nuking the Hindu Kush, thus casting a disquieting flicker of reason across the path of reassurance.

If Obama loses, he will probably ascribe it privately  a mistake he made many years ago, stepping into the Rev Jeremiah Wright’s tumultuous  church in Chicago intead of praying sedately in some dour white Presbyterian chapel in the western suburbs. Obama thought he’d dealt with the Wright problem by a tasteful speech about race in Philadephia in late March in which he said the fiery pastor was anchored in the divisiveness of the past.

Wright came bounding back last weekend, with an unflinching interview with Bill Moyers on tv and a rip-roaring sermon in the National Press Club in Washington. He’s clearly the most powerful public orator in America since Martin Luther King, and as radical as MLK in his toughest moments. People have puzzled about Wright’s timing, which from Obama’s point of view, could not have been worse. I’d bet that there was no plan. In the press club Wrght felt the wind at his back and gave the folks his basic sermon. It’s the way he is and 95 per cent of it makes total sense and is a breath of fresh air, as Wright ushers the Real America onto the stage, as opposed to the political candidates’ flattering fictions.

Has Wright really cost Obama the presidency? I doubt it. There are Americans who will never vote for Obama, because he looks like a black man, whether or not his hue is darkened by Wright’s shadow. There are Americans reminded by Wright that whatever Obama may say,  there are still a lot of angry black people. But particularly this week these Americans have seen that Obama isn’t angry and doesn’t want to demand reparations for slavery  and justice for Sean Bell. He and Wright are in opposite corners of the ring. That could help Obama , having a black radical  as well as whites to run against.

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