Several of my favorite, most memorable quotations come to mind these days as I sadly observe what seems to me like abject, deferential genuflection before Washington’s Democratic Party majority by major labor and progressive organizations in this country.
Oddly enough, it is a poet and not a politician that provides the first insight into the problem. It is Oscar Wilde who famously quipped with his brilliant Irish wit that “true friends stab you in the front.” You have to think about that for a moment.
Maybe the much ballyhooed hope in President Obama has in fact stunned into silence the American reform majority that elected him. Maybe getting snubbed by Obama in the front is more disorienting and confusing than getting stabbed directly in the back by Republicans?
Let us consider a few developments since Obama’s election.
Recall that it was only in May that the heroic pro-choice Dr. George Tillman was murdered in cold blood. Not too long ago, such a violent challenge to the rights of women would have unleashed a massive series of public protests exposing the lies and provocations of right-wing anti-abortionists.
Instead, the National Organization for Women (NOW), Planned Parenthood and other prominent women’s rights organizations followed Obama’s lead and limited themselves to issuing paper condemnations, urging letters to Congress and proposing specific legislation.
Of course these are important initiatives, but only in conjunction with action campaigns. Without broad national mobilizations organized by large independent organizations like NOW, we are left with the deafening silence of the pro-choice majority. This vacuum leaves the two major parties defining terms of the debate.
What are Friends For?
Close acquaintances can get close enough to stab us in the front because we do not expect deception as they approach.
The Mafia has long understood this. Recall the “Godfather’s” Don Corleone explaining to his son Michael that he should anticipate the dirty traitor would be a close member of their own crime family.
But it doesn’t really feel any different being stabbed front or back.
Ask the poor beleaguered people of Afghanistan. The Democratic administration is dramatically escalating US military intervention in that country above what we had during the Bush administration. Where is MoveOn.org? This extremely popular liberal organization gained millions of supporters for its anti-war stance during the 2008 national elections.
Today, their once loud voice for peace is but a whisper.
Then, of course, there is the bankrupt economy supposedly heading towards a “jobless recovery.” A ridiculous oxymoron conjured up by Wall St. sycophants in the administration who steadfastly refuse to support wage increases and a massive federal jobs program as the most effective relief for suffering working class families.
Facing this crisis, or rather backing away from it, the national AFL-CIO kept the midnight oil burning lobbying legislators but it wasn’t enough to keep the lights on at worksites across the country. Millions are laid off and just go home, if they still have one.
There has been not one significant protest.
Not even the United Auto Workers (UAW) with its long proud history asserted itself when they were falsely blamed for driving the industry collapse that was actually steered by the auto barons. Not in one plant, not in one shop was there any resistance organized by national labor leaders even though the dramatic local example in Chicago of the Republic Glass factory workers occupying their plant still lingers in our memory.
The malaise doesn’t stop there. We are witnessing labor’s number one legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, being ripped apart on Capitol Hill like a gazelle carcass on the African savanna and yet labor sits quietly in their tents waiting to be rescued.
Do You Want to Be Lunch?
I’m Mad as Hell!” Peter Finch once shouted from his office window in the 1976 Sidney Lumet film, Network.
Where now is that same spirit of resistance? How much economic and social injustice has to happen before the labor and progressive movement leaders begin shouting “we’re not going to take it anymore?”
Just as it doesn’t feel very good being stabbed anywhere, it also doesn’t really make any difference whether you are eaten, as Malcolm X pithily observed, by the “‘liberal’ fox or the ‘conservative’ wolf.’”
Malcolm X himself didn’t want to be anyone’s lunch so he warned against both the stealth Democratic foxes and the unrepentant carnivorous Republican wolves of his day.
Consider the largely unchallenged lies of racist politicians like Senator Sessions and commentators like Pat Buchanan who flagrantly mischaracterize affirmative action during Congressional hearings for Judge Sotomayor. The Democratic majority sidestepped the whole discussion instead of defending affirmative action gains in the last quarter century.
And then there is the painful truth that discussion of a Single-Payer government medical plan has been completely marginalized by both parties in Congress. Grass-roots organizations are doing their best to expose the lies spread by insurance companies but there is no echo in Washington and no prospect for mass street actions proposed by any organization with real clout.
It’s also completely wrong to expect the administration to lead a staunch defense of Medicare, Social Security and the GI Bill as three examples of essential government programs benefitting millions? It won’t happen. The job has to be done by a re-energized social protest movement. Right-wing mouthpieces would stutter and stumble if challenged to explain their opposition to these hugely popular programs as “socialistic.”
Finally, we had to endure the ridiculous spectacle of reactionaries mischaracterizing President Obama’s plan to lapse Bush’s tax largesse for the super rich as “Marxist redistribution of wealth.” Where are the voices from powerful national organizations explaining loud and clear that dramatic and steady redistribution of wealth upward actually began in the early 1980s and, oops, continued under both Democratic and Republican administrations?
Perhaps the truth is too embarrassing for some of President Obama’s liberal allies to admit, but whatever the reason, none of these conservative political blows will be answered effectively unless unions and progressive organizations stop waiting for cues from “friends” in Washington.
That’s why it was so refreshing to see significant opposition briefly emerge to successfully shed a bright light on Obama’s inaction and extreme hypocrisy regarding equal rights for Gays. The White House felt the pressure.
We must honestly admit, however, that overall, recent attacks against working people, women and minorities have gone largely unchallenged. No national demonstrations, rallies or protests. No civil-disobedience sit-ins, nothing.
I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night
Joe Hill possessed the absolute defiance and determination we need today in our reform movement leaders. Hill was an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) itinerant labor organizer who was murdered by the mine-owners controlled Utah state government in 1915. Joe’s admonition to his supporters that they “don’t waste any time mourning, organize,” is of course known the world over.
But the lesser-known next sentence in his final testament is also very powerful. Joe asked IWW leader Big Bill Haywood if he “could have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.” 1
That’s taking the lies leveled against him and throwing it right back in the faces of his accusers. Standing up to those in power with his last breath, Joe yelled “Fire” just before execution by firing squad.
I don’t see any of these bold, daring impulses today from leaders of our larger political organizations. As a result, when looking at politics in America, emotions range from anger to disappointment. But there is room for optimism.
The historical record provides ample evidence that people will ultimately act in their class interests. Sooner or later, today’s profoundly depoliticized mass will experience a liberating social awakening just as yesteryears’ slaves, serfs and colonial oppressed have all eventually done.
That’s when modern Joe Hill rebels will emerge and perhaps be capable of assuming the leadership of the unions and other mass organizations of working people.
But why is it taking so damn long?
I’ll throw in one last quote that addresses that issue. This time the concise and insightful nugget comes from an expatriate African-America woman living in Paris. She appears in Michael Moore’s exceptional film “Sicko.”
Moore asked why millions of French people demonstrate on social issues rather often whereas nothing like that happens in America. Paraphrasing this woman, she poignantly responded that “in France, the government is afraid of the people. In the United States, it is the people who are afraid of the government.”
Enough said. This woman’s words of wisdom concisely describe, for me, the basic dilemma in this country.
Until and unless we chickens grow some sharp teeth and learn to bite back when chased by either a wolf or a fox, we will likely be running around with our heads cut off. Now I realize that it goes against the laws of nature for chickens to grow teeth, but we humans already have incisors and two legs to hold us upright enough to get up off our knees.
All that is necessary is the insight to discern when we are being suckered and the will to stand up and bite back against both our foes and those posing as friends.
1 In fact, Joe’s ashes were placed in small envelopes and spread by his comrades to every state in the union, except Utah, with several requests from other countries as well.
CARL FINAMORE is a veteran labor and political activist living in San Francisco. His growl is bigger than his bite but he is working on that. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org