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Infomercial Over: Not Good, But It Could Have Been A Lot Worse


Before long, this year’s Democratic Party convention, its infomercial, will be a distant memory. The production values were good. For the most part, I found it watchable, even when the focus was on Biden rather than Trump. In view of what the Democrats are selling, it could have been a lot worse.

There was, of course, some predictable Cold War mongering. Democrats, after all, are unable not to put their worst foot forward.

Thus, they made Biden their nominee. And thus, they have taken to falling all over themselves calling attention to the one respect in which they are even worse than Trump; their determination to revive the old Cold War.

For whatever (probably nefarious) reason, Trump has been giving Russia a pass.

Of course, he too panders to the needs of our military-industrial complex, just as dependably as the Democrats’ Cold War revivalists do. And, except when he finds it expedient to blather on about what he calls “the deep state,” he confers his blessings upon our national security state complex as well.

However, while (Clintonite-Obamaite-Bidenesque) Democrats villainize and target Russia, the Donald takes aim at China instead.

Because the Chinese and American economies are thoroughly intertwined, this is consummately stupid insofar as he does indeed want to make America prosperous again. But, then, stupidity is Trump’s thing. Also, in his mind and in the minds of his supporters, Russia is a great white nation, while China is the Yellow Peril.

Even if they hadn’t realized it already, anyone watching the Democrats’ infomercial could hardly fail to conclude that Trump is, by far, the best thing the Democrats have going. Nevertheless, the liberal commentariat tells us that Democrats must not let the coming election be nothing more than a referendum on Trump; that, to prevail, Democrats also need to be for something. As usual, they are dead wrong.

It would be different if the Democratic Party actually offered something to be for.

But the party leadership, kowtowing to the hopes and fears of their plutocratic donors and in order to keep their own power intact, saw to it that the most retrograde of all the candidates vying for the top slot on the ticket this November would be the one to get the nod.

A vote for him is hardly a vote for anything worth voting for; it is a vote for the conditions that made Trump possible and even inevitable.

How sad, but also how telling, that their infomercial gave more respectful attention to anti-Trump Republicans than to militants in the leftwing of their own party.

The Biden-McCain lovefest was hard to take, but at least AOC got ninety seconds, and no one complained on camera that she put it to good use. This too could have been worse.

As stewards of the status quo, the pillars of the party might not have been gracious enough to give any time at all to those who want to change the world for the better. They might have been even more eager than they plainly are to capitalize on the sad fact that, thanks to their successful assault on the Sanders and Warren campaigns, even anodyne insurgents have nowhere else to go.

It would be futile and also unwise to take aim at this unfortunate state of affairs between now and November. With the Trump menace threatening, the first order of business now is and ought to be to join all anti-Trump forces together — as it were, to forge a popular front.

But this is a tactical move; not a strategic compromise. For as long as Trump and Trumpism remain a menace, it is a price that must be paid.

But once the threat subsides, the immediate task will be either to make the Biden-Harris team a force for good, not just less bad, or else to marginalize it and work around it as much as possible by focusing on where the action is – not at the top, where it almost never is, but in the larger society, where militant insurgents of all ages, genders, and hues are organizing and showing that a better world is indeed possible.

But, of course, there is no getting around the fact that what happens at the top matters too.

Biden must be supported for now, because there is no other meaningful way to vote against Trump; the more votes he gets, the quicker and less painful it will be to put the Trump era to rest.

But, as a force for good, Biden is almost certainly hopeless. The chances are better that Harris will rise to the occasion, perhaps even becoming a force for good in the executive branch.

***

Thanks to Hillary Clinton, the “progressive pragmatist” (or was it the “pragmatic progressive”?), her corporate media flacks, and the Democratic Party establishment, it became timely four years ago to save the word “pragmatism” from defamation.

“Pragmatism” is the name of the illustrious and distinctively American philosophical tradition that grew out of the work of Charles Sumner Peirce, William James, George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, Willard Quine, and many others over the past century and a half.

Clinton was hardly a pragmatist in that or any other meaningful sense of the term. Like her husband, she was and is a political opportunist, with center-right inclinations, without any clear, much less defensible, philosophical orientation.

Now, once again, insufferable bimbos and blowhards on the “liberal” cable channels, NPR, and in our so-called quality press are back at it, calling Kamala Harris and even Joe Biden “pragmatists.”

What they seem to mean is that they are not “extremists.” Extremists, it seems, support such outlandish things as free, universal healthcare, the Green New Deal, and social spending that actually helps ordinary people, not just tycoons, financiers, corporate moguls, and Pentagon honchos.

That sort of thing may be fine for other capitalist countries, but, God forbid, not here.

“Moderate” is a word much used and praised by those who say they like their politicians “pragmatic.” If they had more sense, they would use it all the time, retiring “pragmatic” altogether. It is a more useful word for their purposes because it can mean pretty much whatever they want it to mean and because using it doesn’t call attention to their own intellectual laziness and ignorance.

It would be more informative, however, to call at least some of the politicians that word describes “centrists.” Harris is a centrist.

In circumstances in which it is meaningful to talk about a left-right political spectrum, a centrist is not so much someone in the middle (whatever that might mean), but someone who is non-ideological enough – or perhaps merely opportunistic enough – to go with the flow, as it were, in those rare historic moments when the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, veers to the left or the right.

Biden could be called a “centrist” too, I suppose, though he really isn’t much of anything.

Biden was at the bottom of the barrel among the major contenders for the top job. Harris was in that barrel too; much closer to the top.

Among the women contending later for the vice presidential slot, at this moment of global pandemic, severe economic crisis, racially inflected civil unrest, and impending ecological catastrophes, Harris was at or nearly at the top her pack.

Focusing on her politics alone, and taking account of its many flaws, Harris was third best. In the circumstances, third from the top was arguably as good as we had any chance of getting.

Elizabeth Warren was in the announced choice-set, and her political views are way better than Harris’s. But unless the afflictions of age – mortality, morbidity, and senescence – are about to do Biden in, it is better, all things considered, that, as Lyndon Johnson might put it, she be outside pissing in than inside pissing out. [Decades ago, in an era in which phallocratic turns of phrase were considered unexceptionable, LBJ reportedly said just the opposite about J. Edgar Hoover.]

Biden put himself (or found himself) in a position where his running-mate had to be not only female, but also “of color,” and perhaps, more specifically, “African American.”

No problem there: any of the reported contenders would make a better president than he would, though one of them, Susan Rice, the most hardcore liberal imperialist in the bunch, could well end up doing more harm.

Karen Bass, on the other hand, seems to have better politics than Harris or any of the others. But she was less battle tested and less in the public eye, and because her position on Cuba is, or could be made to seem, too reasonable for politically influential fascisant Cuban-Americans in the battleground state of Florida to abide, she would have been a liability.

In a better possible world, Harris’s express views on Israel-Palestine would be a liability too. It would not be hard to make a case that, compared to at least some of the other VP candidates, the nature and extent of her support for rightwing Israeli ethnocrats, and her disregard of Palestinian concerns, is, even by Democratic Party standards, exceptionally noxious.

On that count, as on so much else, Biden is worse, and not just about Israel; he is on the side of all nationalist movements that tow the American line. On the former Yugoslavia, he was, and may still be, even worse than Bill Clinton.

However, Harris is a centrist, and the consensus view among Democrats, especially younger ones, is fast becoming more critical of Israel than it used to be. And since the last two elections, we know that AIPAC no longer has the power to derail the political careers of Democrats who, on the Palestine Question, want to bend Martin Luther King’s “arc of history” closer to justice in one or another substantive way.

On Israel-Palestine as on so much else, Biden is set in his ways. But at fifty-six, Harris is still able to learn new tricks. These days, after all, the fifties are the new forties.

Harris’s record as a prosecutor is, to say the least, mixed – enough that, in the past, the Donald and the peerless Ivanka both gave donations to her campaign. She also seems to have been less inclined to prosecute big-fish, miscreant predators, like Steven Mnuchin, another campaign donor, than perpetrators of minor crimes.

I have long maintained, no compliment intended, that Harris would be an outstanding director of a secret police. I am now coming around to the view that maybe that is just what we need at a moment in our history when de-Trumpification is about to become the order of the day.

***

Because we humans are seemingly hardwired not to see weirdness in familiar things, it can sometimes be instructive to imagine what an observer from another world might make of what we consider unproblematic.

Imagine therefore a well-informed Martian “anthropologist,” with interests and cognitive abilities similar to those of the best of the American and European anthropologists who have, over many years, investigated peoples untouched or little touched by what passes for civilization here on planet earth. Imagine what such an observer might make of the Biden-Trump electoral contest.

What motivated earthly anthropologists was, in part, scientific curiosity. Some of them also wanted to save souls, and nearly all of them were motivated too by the exigencies of colonial conquest and domination. Until quite recently, the belief that theirs was a “civilizing” mission was also widespread.

Let us therefore imagine that our Martian anthropologists, looking at the Biden-Trump electoral contest, would take a similar view of us.

From a more advanced perspective and with a more developed conceptual repertoire at their disposal, perhaps they would be able to explain, better than anybody here on earth now can, how it is that Trump still has any support at all, much less the forty percent or so that seems to be holding fast, despite all the harm his presidency has plainly done.

An even more baffling problem is how it has come to pass that militants in the forefront of the fight for racial justice and their many allies in the general population care more about candidates’ identities than about their politics; why what they “look like” has taken on the importance it has.

And how will they deal with the oddity and ever-changing nomenclature this entails – with how, for example, “black” is acceptable in most contexts, but words with equivalent meaning in other languages, Spanish especially, are not?

Or with how “colored” is bad, except when it isn’t, as in the name of one of our most venerable civil rights organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but “of color”—essentially, a synonym for “non-white” (according to prevailing, socially constructed understandings of what whiteness is) – is as good as it gets.

And then there is “African American,” a problematic term that Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris puts in especially sharp relief.

Going by one plausible literal interpretation of that expression, Barack Obama, with a father from Kenya and a “white” mother born and bred in Kansas, is as African-American as can be.

However, back in 2008, there were plenty of black militants and intellectuals who disagreed. Their point was that, the color of his skin notwithstanding, Obama’s past had little to do with the experience of the vast majority of people who “looked like” them.

Obama was raised by a white mother and white grandparents in Hawaii, a state in which racial politics and past and present racial realities were and are different and generally less oppressive than elsewhere in the United States; and he was educated not in anything like an urban public school system, but in the Punahou School, the Harrow and Eton of Hawaii’s Anglo-Saxon ruling class since the mid-nineteenth century. This before setting off for Occidental College, Columbia, and Harvard Law School.

Obama did identify as black and, after some false starts, dated and married black, going on to raise a black family. No one questions his ‘blackness’ now. Inasmuch as white supremacists and their fellow travelers in the GOP sustain and nourish their venom on it, it would seem churlish or even indecent to raise questions about it now.

Harris’s case is similar. Notwithstanding the pious blabber about how her path represents the American dream, and taking due account of the undeniable fact that “persons of color” have a rougher go of it than white folks in the Land of the Free, her experience growing up is hardly like that of most of the people who, according to standard usage, “look like” her.

Even less, despite all the brouhaha about “the American dream,” is it like the experience of most persons “of color” with immigrant parents.

Her father, Donald, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Jamaican origin, may not exactly count as a Marxist economist but, like many progressive academics from the Caribbean region and, more generally, from the global South, he is a good enough approximation. A graduate of UC-Berkeley, he is, at present, an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford.

In the public mind, Harvard has a certain cachet that sets it apart from other universities, domestic and foreign, notwithstanding the bevy of self-promoting mediocrities who conspicuously play the Harvard card, and despite Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), and Alan Dershowitz. But in the larger scheme of things, Stanford and Berkeley are just as deserving of warranted and unwarranted prestige.

In Jamaica as throughout most of the Americas, European settlers imported African slaves to take the place of the indigenous peoples whose numbers they and the diseases they brought with them decimated. Throughout the so-called New World, thanks to rape and de facto concubinage, most “blacks” are actually of mixed African and European descent. Donald Harris is no exception.

And although non-whites in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean comprised subaltern populations dominated by white colonials, they were never minority populations, subjected to anything like what the descendants of African slaves in what is now the United States have suffered for the past four hundred years.

Also, in Jamaica and other British colonies, there were no non-elite white communities, and therefore no fodder for the kind of rightwing populism that white elites in the United States have fostered to divide and oppress persons “of color.”

There was better access to educational opportunities for Jamaicans too. For Harris’s father to land at Berkeley and Stanford was therefore not nearly as unlikely as it would be for someone of African ancestry born and bred in the USA.

In short, Kamala and her sister Maya were never culturally deprived or in desperate economic straits in the ways that the vast majority of girls who “looked like” them (sort of) often were. If anything, just the opposite was the case.

Their mother was Indian (Tamal), and therefore “of color,” though not African-American at all. She too was a high powered, much sought after academic. She and Donald Harris met at Berkeley and, when they divorced years later, she took her daughters to live with her in Montreal. Blacks in Canada (“African-Canadians”?) have problems too, serious ones, but again nothing like in the land of chattel slavery and Jim Crow.

Harris’s parents were active in the civil rights movement, and both seem to have had leftwing political views more advanced than hers. Ironically, much the same is true of “moderate” Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s parents or at least his father, a professor at Notre Dame and, among other things, a translator of the work of Antonio Gramsci, one of the greatest of twentieth century Marxist theoreticians.

Could these be two examples of the phenomenon biologists call “regression to the mean”? However that may be, Kamala no doubt imbibed some of her parents’ political knowledge and sensibilities, though during her time as a prosecutor in San Francisco and then as California’s “chief cop,’ it seems to have had only a very limited effect.

If only because Karen Bass was too decent and sensible about Cuba, her candidacy was probably a non-starter all along. No doubt, Martian anthropologists will wonder why Kamala escaped “guilt” (actually honor) by association for as long as she has; why it is only now, as Trump and his kakistocratic minions become increasingly desperate, that the rightwing propaganda machine has taken to redbaiting her. They could also wonder much the same about Mayor Pete.

Nothing, besides Trump, could make one feel good about voting for Biden, but if only she would let a little more of her red side show – red, that is, in the historic, not the CNN-MSNBC sense – one could feel almost alright about voting for her and therefore, because he has to come along for the ride, for him too.

She is twenty times more able than Biden, by almost any imaginable measure, and she is very likely the kind of centrist that has it in her, when circumstances are favorable, to do the right thing.

This isn’t exactly a recipe for bona fide, as opposed to merely Obamaesque, “hope” and “change,” but until the Democratic Party is transformed radically for the better from the bottom up — as long, in other words, as Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, and others of their ilk, including James Clyburn, the most Biden-friendly and therefore the worst of all Democratic Party patroons, are calling the shots — it is about all that we will be able to get.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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