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Sword of Peterloo

“Wow!” exclaimed secretary of state Hillary Clinton when an aide showed her a Blackberry with Gaddafi’s capture as she was visiting Pakistan to twist a few arms.  Her ‘wow’ may be ambiguous – an expression of real surprise, but I fear not.   I’ve seen that same expression on ‘American Idol’ contestants or  local people on TV’s ‘Antique Roadshow’ who have just been told by an appraiser that Aunt Em’s old cassock is worth a fortune.  Days earlier Hillary had hoped “he can be captured or killed”, and lo and behold the Lord’s work was done.  Or as she joked to a reporter when shown Gadaffi’s grisly corpse, she chuckled, “We came, we saw, he died.”

Give it to Hillary, she’s no hypocrite.   The Obama administration’s open policy of “targeted assassination”, borrowed from an old Israeli tactic, may be illegal under presidential orders going back to Gerald Ford and reinforced by Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush.  (“No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”)  But Obama’s style of war is, don’t worry about the fine print let’s not be outflanked by the crazies in 2012.  So far, absent his (reluctantly) going along with Bush’s prior agreement to shut down the Iraq war, he’s sent U.S. troops into action in seven countries on two continents.  Special forces to the Congo and Uganda?  No problem.  What next, the planet Neptune?

Gaddafi was done in by a French Mirage 2000 firing a warning shot at his convoy outside Sirte.  The convoy then was attacked by a U.S. predator drone whose mission had to be okayed at the highest Washington level.  Then he was finished off by his own people.

Hillary’s (triumphant? surprised?) ‘Wow!’ sticks in my head just as I had trouble with the widely circulated p.r. photo of Obama hunched over with his generals (and Hillary) tensely watching via satellite feed the killing of an unarmed Osama Bin Laden by navy Seals.   Hillary and Obama – remote-control killers – are supposed to be “our people”.  It’s our deal.

I keep wondering how they – how anyone – goes from being a good person to this other thing.

Just after World War Two, in the heyday of great English films, the Boulting brothers, John and Roy, made a fine movie, ‘Fame Is The Spur’, from an even better Howard Spring novel.  The film is transparently taken from the life of the Labour Party’s real-life “Judas”, once-fiery socialist Ramsay McDonald, who joined the Conservatives and Liberals in a reactionary ‘National Unity’ coalition government in the 1931 depression crisis.

MacDonald, who rose to become prime minister, was the bastard son of a maid servant.  Michael Redgrave, in his MacDonald role, plays a working-class boy whose fierce proletarian anger is fuelled by his grandfather’s tales of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre when government cavalry rode down and slaughtered a peaceful crowd in a Manchester field gathered for parliamentary reform.

In a somber ritual, the grandfather passes on to Redgrave a  sword from Peterloo that the dragoons used to cut down women and children, a reminder to the grandson to keep the dissident flame alive.  When he is poor Redgrave fights for the poor; when seduced by fame and a peerage – and by ladies of the upper  class – he turns his back on his own people.  It’s a gripping story with tremendous resonance today.

We know a lot about Obama’s background and family history.  He began as a Saul Alinsky-style missionary in Chicago’s poorest black district.  And then – reversing Alinsky’s philosophy of provoking conflict  –  he became a hustling young pol who played poker with both sides of the aisle in the Illinois state senate.

Hillary’s back story is a trifle murkier because she glosses over her renegade youth in books by or about her.   But she, too, as a student worked for Alinsky and wrote an honors thesis about him.  She also interned at the law office of a well-known leftist Bay Area lawyer, Bob Treuhaft (husband of Jessica Mitford), at a time when association with a ‘subversive’ like Treuhaft – a HUAC target – could be a career killer for a young law student.

Each of us probably has his or her own personal ‘sword of Peterloo’, a reminder of our best selves before the hard facts of life set in.

There’s a wonderful scene in ‘Fame Is The Spur’ where Redgrave, now a Member of Parliament and laden with honors, is addressing a mass meeting when a small group of suffragettes bursts in to heckle him, “Votes for Women!”  One of the suffragettes is his own wife, a principled bluestocking who supported his career from a mining pit to Westminister.  The police beat up the suffragettes, and Redgrave is mute and passive as his wife is dragged out of the hall.  His soul dies but he’s too far gone in surrender to know it.

I’ve often wanted to rewrite that scene so that now Redgrave leaps from the podium, punches the brutal cop and joins the protestors thus ruining his career.  But that wasn’t the way of Ramsay MacDonald or of most political pros.

Obama is our Ramsay MacDonald.  Originally, as a fighting Christian socialist in Edwardian England, MacDonald campaigned against the First World War which soon exhausted his moral capital.  Once in government MacDonald preached a gospel of pay cuts, belt-tightening, bipartisanship with the capitalist class (“as cooperative factors in one great common life”), and fiercely opposed the General Strike.   As prime minister of a conservative government, he slashed unemployment benefits and caved in to the banks.  Working-class rage at his betrayal led to mass riots and military mutinies.

How did Saul Alinsky’s bright young protégés become such Halloween ghouls?

CLANCY SIGAL is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at clancy@jsasoc.com

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Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

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