Monday, November 12, 2012

The Week After the Day After

Unable to beat Obama with tried and true tactics – racist fearmongering, voter suppression and the grand coalition of pissed off white men – the Republicans are apparently going for the one thing that never fails: a sex scandal.  Somehow they are trying to tie an extramarital affair, or two, by CIA director Gen. David Petraeus to the attack on the embassy in Benghazi.  Huh?  Doesn’t matter if it makes sense.  An extramarital affair took down Clinton, it will take down Obama, even if it’s not his affair and even if House Majority Leader and superreactionary Eric Cantor also knew about the affair and didn’t broadcast it.

What’s that you say?  The Lewinsky affair didn’t take down Clinton?  Of course it did.  Just ask anyone.  History cannot be changed by the facts.
So like many of you, I breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday.  One because the right wing did not win.  Two, because a few good things passed in California and the worst ones didn’t.  And three because it’s over.
I had been pretty sure that if Obama won, Romney would refuse to concede, demanding recounts in every state, even possibly challenging the electoral college itself.  Maybe it was the fact that that particularly anti-democratic provision of the Constitution was designed to overempower the slave states, which as a number of analysts have noted, closely correspond to today’s red states, that stopped the Republicans from pursuing that strategy.  Or maybe it was the fact that they were truly shell-shocked, caught by surprise, having 100% swallowed their own bunk so that they believed they would win fair and square by cheating and lying, and had no back-up plan.  Maybe, as the new uberman Nate Silver had suggested, their minds were in such a twist that they had lost the simple ability to count to 270.  Anyway, it’s exciting to realize I’m capable of more diabolical thinking than the Republican party!  Have to consider what havoc I can wreak with that special power.
Now as for the Obama victory, I am not so ecstatic, as I’m sure most of you are not either.  As we all know, it means more drones, more deportations, more charter schools, more gay marrying while cities burn and flood.
However, I learned something about myself this election season.  And that’s that as I get older, my appreciation for left-wing self-righteousness, purity and cynicism wanes.  Now this is kind of a shock to my system, because those have been my staple foods for many years.  It’s not that I want to hold hands and sing Kum-ba-yah.  I’m definitely not going to go out there and register voters for the Democrats, or even vote for them very much (in this election, I think the only one I voted for was Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and I’m not all that thrilled with her.)  It’s just that the ability to see the cloud behind every silver lining no longer seems radical to me, instead it seems like another way of preserving and protecting the status quo.
Here are a few posts that reflect the negativism emanating from my corner of the virtual universe on Wednesday:
I am so fucking DONE with being subtly and not so subtly called stupid by my so called friends and comrades in and around the anarchist community for making a different choice than the one they'd like to make for me. All this campaign cycle I have been paralyzed by the ways I've internalized the shaming and silencing tactics. I've been questioning my passion and then trying to quell it. It's hard to stand up and say, yes, I am one of the people you think are morons because I make this particular choice, but I wish i'd done that. Right now I am waiting for the returns and feeling really sad that i didn't go out and fight for Prop 30, and really frightened about what's going to happen if it doesn't pass. having worked on a school budget last year. And I'm pissed at myself for allowing the opinion of people who, frankly, don't care about the same things I do, matter to me.”
--RJ, on Facebook
“…the delirium of liberals this morning is understandable: the night could scarcely have gone better for them. By all rights, they should expect to be a more powerful force in Washington. But what are they going to get from it? Will they wield more political power? Will their political values and agenda command more respect? Unless the disempowering pattern into which they have voluntarily locked themselves changes, the answer to those questions is almost certainly "no"….
“With last night's results, one can choose to see things two ways: (1) emboldened by their success and the obvious movement of the electorate in their direction, liberals will resolve that this time things will be different, that their willingness to be Good Partisan Soldiers depends upon their core values not being ignored and stomped on, or (2) inebriated with love and gratitude for Obama for having vanquished the evil Republican villains, they will follow their beloved superhero wherever he goes with even more loyalty than before. One does not need to be Nate Silver to be able to use the available historical data to see which of those two courses is the far more likely one.”
Glenn Greenwald, "Obama and progressives: what will liberals do with their big election victory?"
“I’m really ready to be done with the in-fighting among the Radical Left….Some folks voted for President Obama, albeit in a range from enthusiastic to reluctant support. Some voted for progressive third party candidates like Jill Stein, choosing to give the side eye to the binary of the prevailing two party system. Others abstained altogether, rejecting the notion that voting for the lesser of two evils is any choice at all.  The Radical Left is not a monolithic entity, but rather a diverse set of communities that approach the realization of justice in a variety of ways. I’m not suggesting that we become more alike, but I am concerned that the way we talk about our differences is not only unproductive but oftentimes a violent distraction from our shared goals….The past two years have been like a family reunion gone terribly wrong.”
“…there are those of us that would have rather seen Romney in the house. Imagine if he took away women's rights, then many people would surely rise up in opposition, bc it effected them directly. Unfortunately since americans don't YET feel the extent of the austerity measures, and haven't YET experienced a drone strike, killing one of their children - so it's super easy for them to ignore the daily horrors done by US (over the past several decades, but significantly advanced by Oboma!), for many in the world...”
the person writing this is too young to remember Reagan, but not to remember GW Bush

It makes me incredibly sad and angry to hear a spectacularly talented and hard-working young activist say she feels shamed and silenced by the people who are supposed to be fighting for a better world.  Isn’t shaming and silencing what we have Rush Limbaugh for?
Let’s get one thing clear: in my lifetime, people have not risen up because we had woman-hating budget-slashing right-wing presidents.  The only significant rising in my adult life came under a Democratic president – Obama, one year ago, remember?  It wasn’t a fluke.  It was because, as Frances Piven and Lorraine Minnite pointed out in The Nation a few weeks back, for a social movement to flourish, people have to feel that there’s a chance they’re going to be listened to.  In 2002-3, we had an enormous outpouring of antiwar energy, millions in the streets, tens of thousands doing civil disobedience.  Bush/Chaney made it clear that they did not care, were not listening, were never going to listen, and the movement fizzled quickly.
For whatever it’s worth, Obama and other politicians heard the Occupy movement.  It changed the conversation, suddenly 99% was on everyone’s lips.  Obama turned around on the Keystone XL Pipeline because of the thousands brought to Washington by and other environmental groups.  He changed his position again, yes, but that doesn’t negate the accomplishment.  He signed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals one day after a group of immigrant kids sat in in his campaign headquarters.  Coincidence?  No.  He didn’t do it because he’s a nice guy, he did it because he needed the Latino vote.  Great, that’s what pressure politics is about.
People waste way way way too much time arguing over whether Obama is the most progressive president since FDR or more right-wing than Reagan.  It doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t even make sense.  As many people have reminded us over the last four years, FDR did not get elected as a progressive; he got elected as a deficit hawk, and became progressive to avoid socialism.
Who’s in the White House is not nearly as important as who’s in the streets.
If your goal is to be right about Obama, or about liberals, then congratulations.  You are.  You can go home and say Mission Accomplished.  But if you want to make change, you actually have to work at it, and you have to do it with a belief that change is possible.  As a magic teacher of mine used to say, if you can’t believe it’s possible, pretend you can.
In the next two months, Obama and the congressional leadership are going to make decisions – in the name of avoiding the “fiscal cliff” – that will have long-term important effects on the lives of millions of seniors, students, workers, on the environment, on transportation, on everything.  Left to their own devices, they will definitely make decisions that will hurt.  If everyone who attended an Occupy march last year hits the road immediately with “No Cuts - Tax the Rich” signs, banners, guerrilla ads, paid-for ads, letters, petitions, lawn signs, window signs, you name it, the leaders may still make terrible decisions.  Or they might make less terrible ones.  Only one way to find out and that’s to stop snarking and start organizing.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Don't Drink the Cool-Aid: Yes on 34

As some of you have noticed, I've been on a blogging holiday, but I just have to respond to some of the things that have been circulating recently from progressives opposing Proposition 34, to repeal the death penalty in California.

Proposition 34, dubbed “SAFE California”, or “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act” is not the death penalty repeal I would have written.  I don’t support the imposition of life without parole for anyone.  I don’t support slavery in prison or anywhere else.  I hate using arguments of cost savings, efficiency and “making these criminals work and pay instead of sitting around in private rooms watching television” to overturn a horrific and immoral policy.  But none of those are legitimate reasons to vote against Prop. 34.

I understand why death row inmates have blasted the initiative, promulgated by Death Penalty Focus and the ACLU.  If the initiative passes, these inmates, who are uniformly low-income and mostly African American or Latino, will lose the right to court-appointed counsel for appeals which have not been filed.  Many of them are old and have been on Death Row for decades.  They will be sent out to maximum security prisons all over the state, far from friends, family and lawyers.  They fear they will be targeted for violence and unable to defend themselves against younger prisoners.

A friend works at San Quentin and she tells me that death row inmates can’t even sit down on their beds because they are covered with legal papers.  They live for their appeals.  It’s a heart-rending image.  But the fact is that there are 700 inmates on death row, and since 1981 only 6 have been released, while 13 have been executed.  So these guys are at least twice as likely to be killed by the state as to be freed if we do not eliminate the death penalty.

Some inmates have painted Prop. 34 as a secret plot by Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin and now executive director of Death Penalty Focus, to deprive them of their appeals and funnel more money to police.  That is fantasy.  According to law professor Ellen Kreitzberg, “Long-time opponents of the death penalty approached Jeanne Woodford and asked her to consider being a spokes person in support of Prop 34.”  I know for a fact that the ACLU and Death Penalty Focus spent a lot of time doing focus groups and workshops to figure out what they could get broad enough support for to actually have a chance of winning.  And California is not all that is at stake.  We have by far the most people on death row in the country, and if California votes to end it, that will give huge momentum to the abolition movement in other states.

People have argued that Proposition 34, in replacing the death penalty with Life Without Parole, would create a terrible new law that we would never be able to change.  That’s absolutely false.  There’s no law that we can’t change.  In fact, 34 would not create new law.  We already have LWOP in California, we already have work requirements for prisoners and prisoners’ wages are already seized by the state.  That doesn’t mean these things are okay.  We should be working against them.  If we do not have to work to end the death penalty, that would free up a lot of time for a lot of people who care about civil rights to work on eliminating LWOP or abolishing prisons.  About 300 current death row inmates would lose automatic access to court-appointed counsel for their appeals (the remaining petitions have already been filed and would still be heard).  There’s nothing to stop us from starting to raise money to fund those appeals.  For years psychologists and civil libertarians have pointed out that the conditions under which death row inmates live – 23-hour-a-day isolation in tiny cells – is a form of torture.  Now suddenly, people on both sides of the issue are romanticizing these torture cells as “private rooms” that the inmates will lose if death row is eliminated.

We are nowhere close to having the political will in this state to abolish the death penalty and life sentences, with or without parole.  We’ve had the death penalty for 30 years and it hasn’t brought us any closer to prison abolition or sentencing reform.  While I sympathize with the people on death row, we cannot risk the lives of more innocent Californians because of the delusions of 300 people that they’re going to win their appeals and be freed.  That’s like opposing food stamps because everyone’s going to win the lottery.

If passing Proposition 34 is the last thing we do for justice, that will be a travesty.  But not passing it will be an even bigger travesty.  It doesn’t require LWOP for anyone who has not already been sentenced to death.  In fact, fewer people would end up with life sentences if DAs could not use the death penalty to coerce people into pleading guilty and accepting life sentences.

However you look at it, there’s just no upside to keeping the death penalty.  Vote yes on 34.