I've been privileged, if that's the right word, to live through the tenures of two of the worst presidents in American history: Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign after his felonious crimes were revealed against the Constitution and the American people, and G.W. Bush, who likely will leave to a rousing citizen chorus of "here's your hat, what's your hurry?, don't let the door you on the way out."
In both cases, covering up their lies and crimes associated with reckless wars (Vietnam then, Iraq now) led Nixon and Bush further down the road to authoritarian misrule. Nixon claimed that the Chief Executive cannot violate the law because when a president acts, ipso facto what he's doing cannot be illegal. Bush claims that whenever he says he's acting in the national-security interests of the American people, he can violate whatever law or Constitutional protection he so desires. Furthermore, Bush asserts, the Judicial Branch should not restrain him and the Legislative Branch has no jurisdiction either. The courts, which he's packed with his ideological cronies, tend to uphold his "Commander-in-Chief" ukases, and the Democratic majority in the Congress tends to roll over and whimper whenever he (or The Cheney) raises his voice.
Now, of course, Vietnam and Iraq are not exact copies of each other, but there are disquieting similarities worth re-examining. In both cases, the military and diplomatic experts warned the president that the war against nationalist guerrillas could not be "won," that the best-case scenario would be endless stalemate — the Q-word (one that rhymes with magmire) comes into play here. In both cases, few in the government understood the deep cultural complexity of the countries they were invading and occupying. In both cases, the local governments, which the Americans helped install, were corrupt, ineffective and lacking in moral authority among their peoples. In both cases, there was collusion on a grand scale between the U.S. government and greedy corporations in the occupied country.
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What got me thinking once again about the parallels between 'Nam/Iraq and Nixon/Bush was engendered by my having been laid low by the 'flu bug last week. After getting fed up watching crappy TV and surfing the internet, I spent a few hours cleaning up my office, and in the course of this rare activity, discovered some old letters of mine to friends and fellow activists during "The Sixties." Those reflections of the time are depressing in a certain way since they indicate how far we've backtracked from the socio-political gains of that idealistic, convulsive era, but they also provide more hope and justification for our current activism. So, here goes:
TIDAL WAVES - CHANGE & FEAR
In a March 1972 letter to a radical colleague, I talked first about how to speed the end of the Vietnam War, and then moved to broader issues: "You ask, in effect, whether our tiny tokens of political activity can be cashed in — or, in other words, what the hell are we really doing, and is it worth it?" I don't know. It seems as if in the mid- and late-'60s that we ("we!!!") created a tidal wave of new consciousness that socked the solar plexus of Middle America into a state of change but also fear. After a while, the huge waves receded and we found the traditional breakwaters (plus that fear) had done their job well, since the foundations of the structures were only weakened, not destroyed. Now we must pick up from where we left off; some of us will gnaw away at the rotten wood, others will meet with carpenters to design some of the new projects when the old structures fall away, others will talk to those with boats for the flood, others will spread the new gospel (the good news), others will rap with middle-class residents in a desire to alleviate their anxieties and show them how they will participate in the new order, and so on. "In other words, we do what we can, while there are relatively quiet eddies in the whirlpool, to rebuild our strength, get our own heads together after the delicious ecstasy of riding the lip of the wave of the future. Our separate efforts, no doubt, seem small — and they are small — but combined perhaps they can create enough sucking power and momentum to generate the next wave of consciousness."
"Our victories must be appreciated in small doses, and we must learn not to allow our frustrations to drag us down into the pits of despondency and inertia. We hack away with our home-made chisels, and someday perhaps our sculpture will begin to emerge more clearly. It would be easier, perhaps, to simply blow it all up and try to pick up the pieces after it's over — but what would have changed, really? Certainly not 'us'."
THE APPRECIATION OF SMALL VICTORIES
One could offer much the same advice today. We may not be able to push all our ideas to fruition each time, or in the ways that are so necessary for significant social advances. This being so, we have to celebrate our rare victories and appreciate our incremental advances, knowing that getting to the "tipping point" will require constant progressive effort and will include innumerable disappointments and failures. While we are working like crazy to change the Democratic Party from within, defeat bad Dems, get more good candidates to run, start the ball rolling about a possible third party, agitate for impeachment and a quick end to the war, etc. — while we're doing all that necessary work, we need to keep in mind what William Rivers Pitt wrote recently about his frustrations with, and ultimate acceptance of, the Democratic Party:
"The Dems will do what the current system requires, and that won't change any time soon, and it no longer staggers me. The bear's gonna shit in the woods, it says so right here in the guide, so I don't care all that much about who the Dems nominate next year, because all of them are beholden to the same system... "My job is to get these rubes elected, again and again and again, and to be patient. Every time we increase our majority, we will increase our ability to pass good laws and appoint good judges, which will slowly bring the country back from the far-right mentality that has dominated for years, which will make it possible and then probable to elect better Dems, and better Dems again. It'll take 10-15 years just to get the national head out of the national ass, which is precisely where the GOP has been shoving it since '81, but that's cool, because patient. Like a stone.
"I don't matter. The idea that is, was and can again be America is all that matters. not supposed to be happy, or pleased, or self-satisfied, or anything other than quietly and patiently horrified. My job is to cope, to work each day on this, and to play for the long term, ten elections minimum, and maybe there'll be a bit of progress... "It won change tomorrow, or after the next election. No candidate of this moment will change it in any measurable sense. But it can be done. It must be done. We are Americans, children of a crazy dream, always striving to make that more perfect union, so that we will be a little more free tomorrow than we were yesterday."
THE POWER OF MARSHMALLOWS
From a 1968 letter to a dear friend about to go on trial for his Draft Resistance work:
"Would it sound patronizing, Bob, if I said I'm proud of you and what you've been doing these past few years? You've got more guts than I, that's obvious; I hope your pay off is worth it all. I think it probably is.
"I've always used the image of a marshmallow to characterize American society: it is so flabbily strong, it can take any punch thrown at it, usually absorbing the puncher in the process. What it can't absorb, it disciplines, harshly or softly, depending upon the mood of the time. In my more pessimistic moments, I believe the U.S. mottleclass society can absorb anything the left can present; Chicago is a good demonstration of that. It absorbed the Gene McCarthy thrust, then disciplined the radicals — and, of course, the great American public supports the cops, who are now a political power all their own to be reckoned with... "So you see, despite all our agitations and hard slogging labors, the 'objective conditions' are not present for a massive social revolution, and will not be present in the foreseeable future. The underlying structure is simply too strong, too well-entrenched for anything other than occasional reform.
"In my more optimistic moments, I see the crumbling pillars of the superstructure about ready for the historical shove, and the merging of the youth/hip/black/student movements — if they ever could do it — would serve as that shove, as they are attempting to do (and sometimes even manage to do) from Belgrade to Bratislava to Berkeley to Beijing. Oversimplified, I admit, but enough of 'something happening,' of generational gaps, to justify the analogy.
"I feel torn — intellectually and tactically schizoid — when listening to the current movement debates. Is this the year? Is now the time? Perhaps I've answered that for myself: I'm going down to Seattle next Tuesday to join in the founding convention of the New Party in Washington State."
THOSE PESKY "OBJECTIVE CONDITIONS"
If the "revolution" couldn't come in The Sixties when tectonic social plates seemed to be shifting every day, then it probably wasn't coming at all. (By "the revolution," I think we activists meant a "revolution" in consciousness throughout the land that would lead to imminent major changes and shifts in everything from politics to foreign policy to economics to education to child-rearing, etc. etc.) "We want the world, and we want it NOW," to quote Jim Morrison, but, alas, it wasn't going to be that easy. The giant American "marshmallow" absorbed that social dynamic, deflected it, attacked it, altered it, and the "New Left/hippie" alliance began splitting apart (with a little help from J. Edgar Hoover & Friends) as factions and ideological sects emerged to battle for the future direction of "the movement." It turned out that the "objective conditions" were really not there in "The Sixties" (roughly mid-'60s to the mid-'70s) for the kind of changes we desired. And that could be said, in spades, for our current situation in 2007, though we must continue to do everything we can to help create those "objective conditions."
True, anger and resentment and frustration are building and gaining momentum in the body politic, enough so that there is at least talk about the formation of progressive alternatives to the calcifying Democratic Party leadership. But it's all amorphous, scattered energy, with few if any leaders or factions emerging to help guide its birth pangs. At least not yet.
AMALGAMS & ALLIANCES
I suspect that it may be too late to do anything significant along these lines for the 2008 election, though certainly it's imperative that we keep fighting for those changes now. This at the same time we're loosening the soil and planting seeds that will grow and send out deep roots, and hopefully yield a bountiful harvest of grass roots alliances somewhere down the line, perhaps even as early as the midterm election of 2010 and the presidential campaign of 2012. Perhaps there will be an amalgam, a fast-building "Movement," of Progressive Democrats of America, United for Peace and Justice, Democracy for America, the Greens, disaffected mainstream Republican conservatives, et al., led by such dynamic activists and thinkers as David Swanson and Medea Benjamin and Robert Kennedy Jr. and John W. Dean and Paul Craig Roberts and Paul Krugman and Jesse Jackson and Mark Crispin Miller and Arianna Huffington and Bill Moyers and Rev. Lennox Yearwood and Cindy Sheehan and Dahr Jamail and Bruce Fein and Ehren Watada and others you can think of as well.
Or, more likely, new, often-younger leaders will emerge from the growing grass roots to provide the energy, innovations and solid ideas to take us further along this path to peace and justice in our time. "'Tis' a consummation devoutly to be wished."
Bernard Weiner, a poet, playwright and Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently is co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).
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