Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fighting for freedom abroad -- and at home

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In two side-by-side Op-Ed pieces in the NY Times on Sunday, February 27, 2011, Nicholas Kristof and Frank Rich discuss apparently very different topics. Rich’s piece, “Why wouldn’t the Tea Party shut it down?”, can be described as “depressing-with-a-glimmer-of-hope.” It compares the current situation in Congress, with a new, empowered, Republican majority with 83 freshman and firm ideology, to that of 1995, when a similar class of mid-term-elected Republicans took control under Newt Gingrich with their “Contract for America”. The similarities are obvious, but he points to the differences as well. Structurally, these include the advent of FoxNews trumpeting the GOP line that this is all about cutting spending and reducing the deficit, and pressures such as Gingrich himself urging current Speaker of the House John Boehner to push ahead with this agenda. Importantly, it highlights the role of massive funding of this agenda by the secretive-but-being-dragged-into-the-open billionaire Koch brothers, whose financial self-interest is being massively served by the Republican policies of tax cuts for the wealthy, and even more by gutting of all regulation of the oil industry (EPA) and financial industry (SEC, IRS and others). As the House moves toward actually shutting down funding for the government, it hopes (believes?) that it can convince the public to blame the President.

What is the “glimmer”? First of all, this strategy did not work in 1995, when the Republicans, not Bill Clinton were blamed for the government shutdown. Second, in 1995 the economy was in very good shape, while now it is still a disaster. While the unemployed and fearing-unemployment portion of the public, may not want to pay taxes, they are their slightly-better-off countrymen both need and want the services provided by the government in that small sliver of discretionary spending (not counting Medicare, Medicaid, and the military) that is on the table. People want their Medicare and Social Security and Veteran’s benefits and are not going to be happy if the checks don’t come because the Republicans shut down government. Moreover, Rich notes that “…the latest Pew survey found that Americans want to increase, not decrease most areas of federal spending – and by large margins in the cases of health care and education.”

Republicans think that they can continue screaming “deficit” and Americans will ignore the fact that the cuts that they propose, targeting social programs they are ideologically opposed to (Head Start, Planned Parenthood, etc.), will not make any significant difference in the deficit, while the cuts they oppose, such as repealing the tax-cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations, would. Maybe people will. Hopefully, especially if the President can make these points clearly, they won’t.

Kristof, on the other hand, provides a tale of inspiration and hope-with-a-serious-measure-of-caution. In “Unfit for Democracy?” he challenges the “crude stereotype” that the peoples of the Middle East (along with those of Africa, China, and other parts of the non-western-European world) are “too politically immature for democracy.” He acknowledges the state failures of Yugoslavia after Tito and the Congo; he is aware of the fears that regime change led to civil war in Iraq, chaos in Somalia[1], repressive theocracy in Iran. I have had friends tell me that the uprisings in the Middle East are about economic opportunity, not freedom. I’m sure economics, in these very poor countries, are part of it, but people are bravely dying for freedom, and they are at home, and not in the military.

Kristof tells us of unspeakable tortures endured in Bahrain, of the bravery of the double amputee he met in Cairo who wheeled his chair to the front lines as Mubarak’s thugs attacked with “rocks, clubs, and Molotov cocktails, of people marching unarmed in Bahrain toward security forces who had opened fire on them the day before.” That while there have been bad, even horrible, outcomes when people have overthrown repressive governments, “countries usually pull through”. That the solution cannot be the continuance in power by the current corrupt and brutal dictators. This is a myth perpetrated by the very dictators themselves to justify their continuance in power, to justify both pocketing most of the money and oppressing their own people.

What is the relationship between these two stories? Tyrants in power share with elites in power the professed (and often believed) myth that those who they oppress are lesser peoples, inferior races, too “childlike” to manage themselves not to mention be “trusted” with managing their country. Bigotry and exploitation exist in a homeostatic relationship, one used to “justify” the other, in a history of atrocities, from the colonialist “White Man’s Burden” to Hitler’s attempt to exterminate all Jews in the Holocaust. This position characterized attitudes toward American Indians, black people, immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, workers and the labor movement, and women. It justified – in our country, built on the idea of freedom and democracy – not only discrimination, degradation, and intimidation, but violent repressive attacks on: American Indians (genocide), black people (slavery and Jim Crow), immigrants, workers, and even women.

Well, these days are not over. American Indians and Black Americans, as well as other minorities continue to be on the bottom rungs of our economic and social order. Attacking immigrants is the new paradigm, with Arizona and its continued escalation of ignoble and often unconstitutional laws being hand-in-glove with the iron fists of those such as the Sheriff of Maricopa County (a worthy successor to the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin Hood’s nemesis on the old television program). Wisconsin moves to the front lines in attacks on workers, with its governor seeking to eliminate collective bargaining under the myth that it is about money, despite the complete accession of the public sector unions to the financial cuts (and despite the fact that it is their own money they are giving back).[2] An astute observer notes: “You look at what is happening in the Middle East where people long kept "under the thumb" are expressing their yearnings for freedom and then contrast that with the fomenting battles over pensions and collective bargaining here in the US. It doesn't take long to start asking "What is wrong with this picture?![3]" What indeed?

In Egypt and Bahrain in recent weeks,” Kristof writes, “I’ve been humbled by the lion-hearted men and women I’ve seen defying tear gas and bullets for freedom we take for granted. How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?”

Most of us in the US, those who are not the mostly young and mostly poor and working class people deployed in the at-best-futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are not in danger of dying from government-directed violence. But we are certainly in danger of losing the freedom as our rights are all sold off to the highest bidder, and we must stand against it.

[1] See also the article on the Somali pirates and what the response might be,
[2] See Rick Ungars piece on Forbes.com, “The Wisconsin Lie Exposed – Taxpayers Actually Contribute Nothing To Public Employee Pensions”.
[3] R. Aistrope, personal communication.
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