You Never Know: A Response
by Phineas Dash
My brother Theron vented spleen on the outcome of the midterm elections, a family custom. (See below: 11/6/2002) I offer not a rejoinder exactly, because mostly I agree with his point of view, but a response of a more philosophical tenor.
While attempting to minimize their official gloating in the intervening time since the election, the Bushies have nevertheless begun to spend the spin capital of their alleged victory of ideas, as well as use the perception of elected power to quietly push their agenda. This is just as dangerous as Theron said, insidiously so since a lot of it is relatively subtle. Still, San Francisco columnist Jon Carroll caught on to the implications of a Bushie proposal to take control of the dissemination of federal government information from the Government Printing Office and give it to the politically controlled cabinet agencies: even technical information will be subject to censorship and spin. It's likely the public never would have seen the recent report on global warming that "the bureaucracy" produced, because it contradicts the Bush line.
Several columnists and newspapers have also caught the biggest move the Bushies are making, without official accountability to anyone: by administrative fiat, they are instantly destroying the jobs of more than three quarters of a million federal civil service workers, a bold and insidious slaughter in their ongoing class war. In the guise of privatizing for efficiency, they will further cripple the federal government---good for corporations that don't like being regulated---and ensure that these functions (for they aren't getting rid of the tasks, just the people doing them) will be performed less efficiently by lower paid workers, without the benefits and status and above all, job security of the civil service, since that would conflict with the Bushies' political agendas. It's what we're going to get more of: politicizing the government, centralizing the control, class warfare.
The Homeland Security act is rife with special interest provisions benefiting corporations and limiting the public's ability to get information about the government (by negating Freedom of Information Act rights) while it increases government's ability to get, organize and store information about the public. This is "less government"? This is Big Brother.
Last year a Hollywood film ("The Majestic") was able to rewrite the history of the 1950s so that a falsely accused screenwriter could tell off the House UnAmerican Activities committee and the public automatically saw that the injustices of the McCarthy/Hollywood Blacklist were themselves un-American violations of liberty. Don't you think that actual Hollywood screenwriters tried to make that speech at the time? It got them jail time for contempt, and a vast chilly silence from the public. Well, it's happening again--there are already blacklists relating to supposed terrorists making the rounds, denying people their rights, getting them fired or not hired, getting them tossed off airplanes, etc. The lists are full of mistakes but since nobody knows who really compiled them, there's nobody to talk to about correcting them--same as in the fifties. The difference is that everything is computerized and the lists are all over the place. And this is just the beginning...
It's supposed to be for the war on terrorism but just how sincere that is could be seen on Bill Moyers' "Now" (in a report by San Francisco's KQED)that blew the whistle on John Ashcroft for contorting the law in contradiction to his own Justice Department so he could meet the demands of the National Rifle Association. While proposing that virtually all personal information of all citizens be open to scrutiny by Homeland Security, he steadfastly denies the FBI access to current federal records on gun purchases. To fight the war on terrorism, apparently the FBI needs to know what books you take out of the library, but not who is illegally buying hundreds of assault weapons at gun shows.
So I don't dissent from Theron on the Bushie Republicans and their radical fundamentalist reactionary agenda. However I would like to offer some rays of hope on the Democrats.
The day after the election, Richard Gephardt fell on his sword and resigned as the House Democratic leader. It's the best thing that could have happened, next to Tom Daschle also resigning as Senate leader. These guys aren't dishonorable men, but their leadership has led down a dishonorable path. Gephardt's move signals that the Democrats have recognized their strategy's failure.
The House Democrats then elected Nancy Pelosi as their leader. Both before and after her election, she said that Democrats have to state their positions more clearly, especially their differences with the Republicans. When news surfaced that Hilary Rodham Clinton was likely to be asked to join the Senate leadership, she said pretty much the same thing. This is as close as politicians will get to saying that the era of big cowardice is over.
We'll see. But if there is any immediate hope in the Democratic party, it's Nancy Pelosi. Born in Baltimore and representing a San Francisco district, she can sound uncannily like Bobby Kennedy in her inflections as well as her words. She's already gotten under the skin of Republican commentators, which is a very good sign. She was tagged as a "latte liberal," which consolidates insults to liberals, Californians and baby boomers, via the fashionable slander by the likes of David Brooks. Maybe it insults Italians as well.
Responding to her election, right-thinking columnist George Wills was aghast at the Democrats' stubbornly embracing their core values which, according to him, were repudiated at the polls by right-thinking Americans. Wills seems to feel that standing up for the non-super-rich,for social justice, against reactionary fundamentalist economics, and against indiscriminate killing of helpless people to enrich oil men and tighten their control of our erstwhile liberties, is all in rather bad taste.
Democrats have apparently chosen instead to see the lesson of the election as caused not by incomplete capitulation but by too much of nothing. They're probably correct--they lost a lot of close elections, and the war fever/patriotism p.r. campaign that substituted for a political campaign may have made the difference. In any case, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. Be who you are.
The Democrats have to state clearly and eloquently what's wrong with the Bushie foreign policy and economic fundamentalism in terms of harm to the country as a whole, and to the majority of its citizens. They must state clearly and eloquently how their policies express their core values: the way things ought to be.
The Democrats must do all this while focusing on the future. Yes, the future looks about as grim as Theron indicated, even taking into account election night depression. But it's not set in stone. The other night on "Now"---after a discussion describing a present that sounded a lot like "the future" that our brother Morgan depicted in a novel he wrote in the early 1980s---Bill Moyers asked Harper's editor Lewis Lapham whether he was optimistic about the future. "Sure," Lapham said, "because you never know. You never know."
The future is that which has not happened yet, therefore it is the open sea of possibility. There are two principal attitudes it is possible to take about the future: fear or hope.
The Republican reactionary agenda is about the past. It is about fear. Fear is a great motivator, but it isn't very smart. Hope requires consciousness, if is anything more than denial masked in cheerfulness. Years ago Arthur Schlesinger called liberalism the politics of hope.
Yes, hope requires a vision, and hope for our future requires a new and complex vision. But hope is also political, and of the moment.
"People don't eat in the long term," said Harry Hopkins, FDR's most valuable aide. "They eat every day." Hope is first of all about the future as a succession of present moments. Without working towards decency in the present, hope had no meaning in the political world. And hope is all about meaning, or it doesn't exist, it doesn't motivate, it doesn't produce the pause to evaluate, to overcome fear.
A better today fosters a better tomorrow, although a better tomorrow requires more: it requires dreams and hard work, persistence and imagination. It requires dedication to a larger agenda, while respecting the needs of participants in the present.
Hope is directed to the future, but it animates the present. I don't call myself an optimist or a pessimist. The mind may see the enormity of our present self-destructiveness, and disengage. The heart might despair, or it might flutter anyway in the joy of living that is pretty stubborn as a survival tool. But pessimism of the mind and optimism of the heart meet in the soul. The soul is the essence of being human. The only human attitude to take to the future is hope. So I am hopeful.
Hope and fear mix in the soul, and we do the best we can. But hope is a low persistent flame that flares up now and then, like a mother's smile. Fear can too easily become a roaring fire that consumes everything. We must bring hope back into the public and the political worlds of discourse and decision, and fan those flames.
A society that thrives on fear forgets the future. Fear burns up the present. The Democrats must once again become the party of the future. "The New Frontier," JFK said in accepting the party nomination in the summer of 1960, " is not a set of promises. It is a set of challenges." It is that philosophy, not necessarily that program, that Democrats must revive.
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