Jan 25, 2011

January 25, 2011: Dictatorship of Corporate America, Truth and Power, No One Left

The Dictatorship of Capital. It sounds strange to our ears in this land of liberty, but it shouldn’t. We have a long history of censorship in this country going back to the very earliest days of the Republic. During the administration of our second president, John Adams, the congress passed the Alien and Sedition acts which, among other things, made it illegal to speak badly of the president or the government. During the civil war a United States Congressman, Clement Vallandingham of Ohio if memory serves, was seized and transported into confederate territory for his opposition to the war. The Palmer Raids in the wake of World War I and the McCarthy era at the beginning of the Cold War, in which such performers as the “Weavers” were banned from Television and actors like Lloyd Bridges were blackballed. Then came Vietnam which saw the cancellation of the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” because of their pointed political commentaries in opposition to the war. When performers and, at times, regular citizens have spoken truth to power the consequences have all too often been unpleasant.

It comes as little surprise, then, to see the strongest voice of progressive criticism on the airways silenced. While his audience was growing, and he paved the way for others—Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell to follow, Keith Olbermann was fast becoming a bur under the saddle to Corporate interests. Lets be clear about this, here was not a demonstrated case of government but corporate censorship. As with the cases of Bridges, the Smothers Brothers, Ed Asner and others, this was not the first such action by Corporate America to reign in free speech; nor will it be the last.

I have not been understood: It is not government dictatorship that we need fear. It is corporate dictatorship. Lest it appear that this be a bit of hyperbole, a bit over the top, let’s review a few facts.

First we spend more money in this country on private security than on the public police. This has been true for some time now. I’ve run across the truth of this statement not only by reading the works of Robert Reich but also having worked in the security industry where they speak with pride about society placing greater value upon the Pinkerton’s than the police. The Pinkerton’s, incidentally, don’t have to read you your rights upon arrest, nor give you access to an attorney.

Secondly, the intrusiveness of corporate America monitoring your every financial transaction, your every physical move is astounding. Imagine the demonstrations in the streets if the government were to so monitor you. Yes the government does more monitoring of its citizens than it has any right or need, but it pales in comparison to the “big brother” that is Corporate America. As a case in point: I once new a person who sat on a jury in an arson trial. The defendant was confronted with all kinds of financial records. Was he late on some utility bills? Of course. Was he late on some credit card payments. Of Course. You draw the verdict. If confronted with a phalanx of corporate attorney’s you can depend on the records of whatever you do—and records are kept on everything—being dragged out to demonstrate this or that motive. Further, Corporate America has installed video cameras in every parking lot, every apartment complex, every hallway, every sidewalk, every supermarket and department store. Capital monitors your every move. In the wake of the citizens united case Capital now buys your every election. As noted above Capital censors what you see and hear.

Thirdly, with the exception of a few rare appearances by labor leaders and environmentalists on the old MSNBC—that is on Maddow and Schultz during the Olbermann era—when was the last time they appeared on national television or radio? In my youth when Lawrence Spivak hosted NB C’s “Meet the Press” one would see labor leaders like Walter Reuther and George Meany, at least once a month. So it was on all the other network interview programs. One also saw environmentalists, peace activists, civil rights leaders. In short, under the “fairness doctrine” voice was given to alternate points of view. A reflection of the “counterveiling power” to use professor Galbraith’s terminology that existed to balance the power of Corporate America. Beginning with the Reagan years, Corporate America began to confuse itself with the genuine article to the point now where it dominates—indeed nearly monopolizes—everything. One’s own personal space: look at that logo you have emblazoned on your shirt. Look at all that advertising that comes into your home. The workplace: where are your unions? Who protects you now from capricious and arbitrary behavior? The public forums: When was the last time you saw the President of the AFL-CIO on the air. Do you even know who he is much less what he represents?

Olbermann, although strident, was hardly a radical. Here was no socialist. Here was no firebrand. He functioned primarily as a voice of reason and sanity calling out the idiot wrong for all its misrepresentations and outright lies. News, on “Countdown” was covered by way of picking up on how the Wrong-Wing was covering it—Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, and famously O”Reilly, and setting the record straight. It was universally seen as an exhausting work for there are over 450 such howlers out there and it takes herculean effort to shovel so much shit. But for all the nonsense that has been said about the so-called “Liberal” press since the Nixon era, wherein lies truth to the charge? Has there been a call to reinstate progressive taxation? Has there been a call to reinstate the tax code of Jerry Ford much less Dwight Eisenhower? Has there been a call to vigorously enforce anti-trust law? No. Corporate America would never tolerate it. It could not tolerate even Olbermann who proposed no such thing. Olbermann’s crime was to simply demand some honesty in the debate, but Corporate America would have none of it. The media now, such as it is, is fast becoming a house of mirrors fashioned by capital to worship its own reflection.

With the shouting down of political discourse at “town hall meetings” by the brown-shirt tactics of corporate shills representing themselves as modern minutemen, with corporate America increasingly assuming the police powers of the state, with the print and electronic media in the hands of a very few corporate giants we are left to ponder “who speaks for us now”. Increasingly, we stand alone now before our corporate paymasters, just like on the shop floor. Separate but equal? It’s beginning to look a lot like Jim Crow to me, with no one left to call them out.

Jan 22, 2011

January 22, 2011: The Dictatorship of Capital, Paradise Lost, Silence of the Lambs

“Where once we feared the dictatorship of the Proletariat; we now embrace the dictatorship of Capital.”

From the “Quotations of Chairman Joe”

My brother, who in an earlier incarnation was a regional Vice-President of the Machinists Union will tell you, if you ask, “the truth is that capitalism doesn’t work, communism doesn’t work, what works is a combination”, in a word a hybrid or what used be called a “mixed” economy.

In high school my old government teacher instructed us that what made America great was that we refused to adopt ideologies. The concept of “isms” are foreign to us. The litmus test, as it was then applied, was not whether an action was ideologically correct or pure, right or wrong but whether or not it worked. To that end we in the United States, as in the liberal democratic states of Western Europe, went about constructing in the twentieth century democratic societies with decidedly hybrid or “Mixed” economies. This arrangement combined a free market economy with a vigorous regimen of corporate regulation, anti-trust actions, graduated income taxes worthy of the name, and a host of state-sponsored entitlement programs. Known generally as the “Welfare State”, in Gunnar Myrdal’s terminology, the new order provided a more level playing field, a more healthy distribution of wealth, a better education for nearly all citizens and a so-called “safety net” for those who fell through the cracks. Meeting the demanding standard of “does it work?” the greatest generation came home from war and built a social order that brought peace and economic progress to every class of Americans—including the wealthiest Americans.

The emerging consensus wrought by the New Deal gave us, a robust and growing middle class. Prosperity in the form of the “boom” years of the early 50’s and the 60’s was a near universally shared experience with all classes benefiting by the improvements in economic production and therefore wealth.

The great unraveling began with the emergence of Barry Goldwater in 1964 spawning in his wake a cadre of determined disciples who would, in ensuing years, labor in the political vineyards and the conservative stink tanks to launch a determined assault on paradise. After nearly 40 years of Republican and Republican-lite we are left with a situation wherein we begin to resemble to classic Banana Republic, where even our national elections are monitored by international agencies.

Just a few salient facts: Today the middle class commands less of the national wealth than before 1929. Six of our largest banks control 66% of the economy. The top ten percent controls 60% of the national wealth; conversely, the bottom 50% controls a mere 1%.
With organized labor representing a mere 12% of the workforce, a fraction of the laboring class less now than before the Wagner Act was passed in the 1930’s the scales have been heavily tipped in favor of Capital. To many of us who have watched with dismay the developments of recent decades our fears have not been unfounded. With the Supreme Court decision last years in the Citizens United Case, in which the Court, overturning long established legal precedent, held that Corporations and Unions can spend unlimited amounts of money, the specter of near corporate monopoly of political discourse becomes palpable. It did not take long to confirm our worst suspicions as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, soliciting tens of millions of dollars in foreign contributions, spent heavily to engineer a right-wing take-over of the United States Congress. Karl Rove’s political action committee raised millions from a handful of fat-cats. Similarly the Tea Party shenanigans were funded by a relative handful of billionaires funneling money through Dick Army’s political action committee.

As the unions decline in relative strength, the tepid efforts of those on the so-called “progressive” side of the argument pale by comparison and will, in all likelihood, fall far behind. It’s not because we on this side of the aisle don’t have right on our side, its that we don’t have near the money. Soon nothing will be left but the echo chamber fashioned by capital to worship its own reflection

On that note yesterday Keith Olbermann left MSNBC and his “Countdown” program is no more. Olbermann had built the program into a serious challenge to Fox Noise, leading MSNBC past CNN to second place in the cable news business. Evidently this is not a market decision but a political one taken by the corporate paymasters. The press release said that it was a mutual parting of ways, but the network had all too quickly announced its new programming line-up. Sources close to the scene say that he was almost fired last fall for contributing to three democratic campaigns and that one of MSNBC’s executives who had protected Olbermann was leaving. Both departures, it appears to this commentator, have everything to do with the pending purchase of NBC by Comcast, who evidently have no interest in a “countervailing power”. “Let us silence this bleating of the sheep” said the corporate paymasters. Corporate America has, once again, spoken. Capital has Dictated.

Welcome to the Dictatorship of Capital.

Jan 11, 2011

January 12, 2011: Rhetoric and Reality, The Politics of Envy vs. The Politics of Greed, Pricilla Goodbody.

“It is not the rhetoric that creates the conflict, but the conflict that gives voice to the rhetoric”

From “The quotations of Chairman Joe”

Late last August, on the Capitol Mall, telebuffoon Glenn Beck of Fox Noise held a rally at the Lincoln monument. Originally billed as a political event, then as an attempt to “take back the civil rights movement” it morphed into a quasi-religious affair in which the great howler toned down his rhetoric and delivered a much less menacing message than is customarily the case on his daily talk shows.

In response comedians Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert held a much larger and less partisan rally at the same place in early October hoping to restore ‘sanity’ to political discourse. Stewart made reference to the vitriolic and divisive political speech that has taken control demanding that we return to some modicum of civilized discourse. It was a bold and perhaps pointless exercise.

Three years ago CSPAN televised a forum at the University of Oklahoma featuring, among others, the likes of Mayor Bloomberg of New York, Former Senator John Danforth of Missouri, Gary Hart and former Sam Nunn of Georgia. The topic was political discourse with the general consensus being that partisan politics have poisoned the well making it difficult to govern in the United States.

In the wake of Stewart’s criticisms, Keith Olbermann modified his Worst Persons segment on his “Countdown” program to read “not really Worst Persons”. But equating MSNBC with Fox Noise appears, on closer inspection, almost laughable. Bill Mahr, asked to comment pointed out the false equivalence. “Look,” he said “Olbermann at least deals with facts, there is an objective reality. Beck, on the other hand, is just short of playing in his own poop”. Nevertheless the point stands. Much of the tone of this column is in reaction to the idiot wrong and the vitriolic nonsense constantly coming from the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, Coulter and company. As with Olbermann, some of us have taken to the internet, or in his case the cable channels, to give the cons and the neo-cons a bit of their own medicine. To do otherwise would be unilateral disarmament and only succeed in confirming—by lack of response—the public view that those on the left are simply wimps.

But let’s be clear about this. The rhetoric, such as it is now, is a product of the right-wing smear machine and the left’s reaction to it. As an old friend of mine used to say “if you want to kill the rats, you have to crawl down in the sewer”.

Well that’s not completely accurate. In fact the stridency and the vitriol are mere reflections of the suffering of the middle and working classes as they grapple with the death grip that the controlling interests in this country have over the economy. The cries of agony are met with even more strident condemnations from the economic royalists about class warfare and the politics of envy. Cast between the bookends of the politics of envy vs. the politics of greed lies the great chasm left by the ever embattled middle class.

Let’s be clear about this: the political divisions within this country are not the result of the political vitriol coursing through the veins of American politics. Rather it is precisely the opposite. The vitriol that presently permeates the internet, the airwaves, cable news and opinion is merely an expression of the deep divisions within this country. More precisely it is a direct result of the destruction of the relative power—economic and, therefore, political—of the middle class. If speech has become rough it is because Johnny Carson’s “Miss Priscilla Goodbody” –the mythical librarian censor at NBC—has been fired due to corporate restructuring. That is, the middle class is no longer strong enough to act as a referee; it no longer has the economic and—therefore—the political power to reign in on the extremes. As a case in point: simply suggest in an open forum the return of the ‘fairness doctrine’ to broadcast and internet content and see what happens.

Last Saturday morning at a strip mall in Tuscon Arizona, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot along with 19 others while holding an open-air town hall meeting with her constituents. Many, including MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough have warned that the heated rhetoric falling on troubled minds would result in such tragedy. Clearly, if the town-hall demonstrations of 2009 are any indication, the ability to excite beyond reason a segment of the population that is clearly unstable will lead—given the availability of weapons in this country—to precisely these outcomes. It is a tragedy we have witnessed all too often, and the middle class, unable to reign in the excesses of even the National Rifle Association, is now powerless to stop it.

Jon Stewart may have been trying to function as the fictional “Miss Pricilla Goodbody” but he doesn’t have near as much control.

January 11, 2011: A House Divided, The Center Gives Way, From Transcendence to Triangulation

“War on the middle class is war on the republic itself”

---The Quotations of Chairman Joe

The term “Banana Republic” became part of our political lexicon in the twentieth century. It has quite a specific meaning. The nomenclature emerged from several and repeated failed experiments in representative government originating in Latin America where the United States, in an effort to gain legitimacy for its hemispheric hegemony, engaged in repeated attempts to impose its form of government on its neighbors to the South. The result, with rare exceptions, was throughout the last century largely disappointing. There were furtive attempts at establishing Republican forms of government throughout central and South America usually ending in the overthrow of these governments by indigenous forces or, as in the case of Haiti, Brazil, Guatemala, Chile, the Dominican Republic, at the instigation of the United States itself. What became clear, from these experiments in social engineering, was that the establishment of representative government in countries with severe maldistributions of wealth proved to be problematic. A pattern began to emerge. The landless and impoverished masses given the vote would in due course elect an assembly that would move to redistribute wealth. The moneyed interests, screaming communist plot, would then call out the military and, either on their own or painting the populist movements as pawns of the “international communist conspiracy”, excite the ever virulent strain of paranoia that lurks just beneath the surface in the United States to enlist American aid and gain legitimacy for the ensuing repression. Let’s be clear about this. In Nicaragua the entire country was but a plantation for the Samoza family. In Venezuela the top 10% owned nearly 90% of the country. Other countries, like Mexico, presented a democratic tradition in which the PRI, which took power with the revolution in 1910, held sway for over 80 years. Many of the noble experiments quickly degenerated into one-party rule or outright dictatorships. Again what would happen is that the people would gain voice through the various parliaments and would move to redistribute land and/or wealth. Wealth would first seek to buy back power and, failing to effect a favorable outcome, call out the military bringing a swift end to the “democratic” experiment. In those countries wherein the military proved insufficient or reticent to crush its own people, the elites would then turn to the United States to destabilize, help overthrow, or simply send in the marines. Here in this political Petri dish the conditions necessary for the establishment of stable representative government came fully into relief. These experiments in making the entire hemisphere over in our own image demonstrated a political principle our forefathers understood: that representative government can only be established in a society wherein there is an equitable distribution of wealth. If the gulf between the have’s and have not’s is too wide the foundations of the republic will not hold. As Lincoln would say in a different context nearly a century later “a house divided against itself cannot stand”.

What distinguishes us from the classic Banana Republic is that advanced democratic societies are characterized by a large, vibrant and controlling middle class. This is no accident. It is necessary for the Middle Class to be strong enough to counter the weight of the extremes of poverty and wealth whose interests stand diametrically opposite one another. If wealth is concentrated in too few hands then it will simply buy power, as is becoming more evident in each election cycle. If the poor begin to outnumber the Middle Class and society becomes bifurcated into two camps—the wealthy few and the impoverished many—then the democratic experiment is bound to fail as in the classic example of the Banana Republic wherein wealth wins; or the French Revolution where wealth loses. Without a strong and pervasive middle class to act as a referee, to stand as a “middle ground” for which the polar opposites must compete, then there is no “buffer” there is no compromise.

Benjamin Franklin, so the legend goes, was stopped on the street as deliberations ended on the new Constitution. A woman walked up to him and asked, “what kind of government have we, Mr. Franklin?”

“A Republic, if you can keep it”, replied the old inventor.

If we can keep it…the founders knew this was an historical experiment. They knew their creation was a fragile one and many did not expect the republic to outlive them. As Arthur Schlesinger points out in his “Age of Jackson” many not only distrusted the Eastern Mercantile interests but understood from their reading of history that a true republic must be born of a large and controlling class of middling station. So in the 19th Century Jefferson’s yeoman farmer became the Bulwark of the Republic so to speak.

Lets be clear about this. The middle class is not a product of great wealth, it is not something handed down to us from above as a manifestation of philanthropy or even enlightened self-interest. The middle class has always been the creation of political will. The idea that the wealthy will, out of some exaggerated sense of “noblesse Oblige” or out of their own economic interests, create and defend a social middle class is laughable on it’s face. Nothing in the history of man demonstrates this. In fact the moneyed interests have forever been found kicking and screaming and standing foursquare against everything from banning child labor, unionization, the eight-hour work day, the forty hour work week, the minimum wage, social security, health care, civil rights (read about the “anti-abolition riots” in New York City in the 1830’s and the business community’s support of the rioters) environmental and consumer protections, to name but a few articles of reactionary litany.

Let’s get back to this: the middle class is a product of political will. If the last three decades demonstrate anything it is that with the reduction of taxes and the growing share of the national economic pie taken by the wealthiest Americans almost none of that money has found it’s way into the middle class. In fact, left to their own proclivities, the wealthy have done what they always do…pocket the money. In the last decade they have commandeered two thirds of the tax cuts and fully three quarters of the wealth produced by the increases in worker productivity. Nothing is “trickling down” to the next social rung as evidenced by the stagnation of incomes, and the absolute decline in purchasing power of those of ‘middling means”.

The middle class in America was and is a creation of political will. Whether it was through the outright rejection of the attempt to transplant European aristocracy to the new world during the colonial period, the expansion westward as a way of insuring the survival of the yeoman farmer, the institution of income and estate taxes early in the last century, the breaking up of trusts and other economic combinations, the passing of education, and home mortgage programs in the postwar era, to laws making it easier for workers to organize (until Reagan that is), to minimum wage, unemployment and worker’s compensation insurance, to Medicare and Medicaid these were political acts taken by the people’s representatives assembled. As a case in point: before the passage of Social Security being old was almost synonymous with being poor. In fact as late as the early 1960’s over 30 percent of the elderly lived in poverty. With the passage of Medicare and Medicaid and other such programs that level has been reduced to nearly 10%.
The passage of this legislation and the institution of these programs not only served to create a ‘fairer’ distribution of wealth but served the more important function of shoring up the modern American Middle Class and, by extension, the foundation of the republic itself.

I have not been understood. The middle class is itself a creation of political will designed to give stability to the republic. Without a middle class, in a representative society, one has contention, strife, war, revolution or repression. Only an all-powerful middle can insure against the extremes and for that reason war on the middle class is war on the republic itself.

In November last year, the center gave way. The ship of state was ripped loose of it’s moorings and cast to sea piloted by a ship of fools. Losing over 60 seats in the house to the modern “No-Nothing” party, the Speaker’s gavel was handed over to John Boner of Ohio who, upon taking the dais, announced that the first act of the new Congress will be the repeal of the Health Care law. Obama, with the opposition in control of committees, investigations and spending, will now be forced to do what Clinton had done, become the buffer between his own party and the newly re-emergent troglodytes. “Triangulation” it was called then; a strategy of positioning the President in the middle in which he becomes not an advocate of his agenda but an architect of a series of miserable compromises. The promise of ‘transcendence’ becomes the reality of ‘triangulation’. The last time we found ourselves in this position, we witnessed so-called ‘welfare reform’, trade agreements that savaged manufacturing jobs, cuts in social spending, the further dismantling of New Deal banking regulations, and the continued decline of the share of national wealth controlled by the Middle Class. If recent history is any example, it means the resumption of the war on the middle class and, by extension, the Republic itself.

Jan 5, 2011

December 24, 2010: Meteoric Perils, Strawmen, A new Jim Crow?

In politics there are perils attending meteoric rise. It’s one thing, if one is a Warren Harding or a Rutherford B. Hayes or a Millard Fillmore to be plucked from near absolute obscurity and seemingly overnight ensconced upon the throne. These men, after all, planned to do nearly nothing in office once they grasped the scepter of power, and fully expected to return to nearly absolute and well-deserved obscurity. These men were destined to take their places as mere questions in the historical game of ‘trivial pursuit’. But for those with an overarching vision of the office, or those unlucky enough to reside in the White House during troublesome years, to govern without the determined support of the attending political coalition is nearly impossible.

The problem with the election of 2008 was that for differing reasons the Republican nominee came to the table with equally suspect support. Having spent nearly two decades in the Senate as the Senator of K street, the conservative stalwarts of the party, as their Democratic liberals on the other side of the isle, would search in vain for any demonstrations of support not to mention the championing of any issues of consequence. Obama because of his all-to-brief presence on the national political stage and McCain, with the possible exception of campaign finance reform—anathema to Conservative ideologues and Capitalists alike—his only contributions involved burnishing his so-called ‘bi-partisan’ credentials. The term “Maverick” meant not strong conservative leadership to most Republicans, but his predilection to dance with the Democrats instead of the one who brought him to the party to begin with. Clearly, whoever took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20, 2009 would have major elements of his own party looking over his shoulder watching, suspiciously, his every move.

There were further complications. The first involved race. I remember during the campaign a conversation I had with a co-worker concerning the nature of Obama’s liberalism. Whatever his liberal leanings, I intoned, Obama once elected could not be seen as champion of a massive jobs bill or the raiser of new taxes. He would be charged not only with the usual nonsense about leading a ‘class war’, but would also been seen by a significant part of the electorate—perhaps a majority—of effecting reparations for America’s sin of slavery. There is ample precedent for this. Because of the alleged abuses of the Reconstruction Era after the Civil war, for instance, many white Southerners see any economic or social initiatives through the dark lens of race. And, in fact, it wasn’t long before the likes of Limbaugh and Beck were raising precisely this issue as the administration struggled to pass the stimulus package. No, I told my friend Robert, lacking the latitude brought by long acquaintance and hemmed in by the everlasting issues of Race in America, this would be no New Deal. Obama would prove not to be a ‘socialist’, or even a liberal but would instead govern from the center. As he gathered about him the remnants of the old guard I felt the air go out of the balloon that was the inflated rhetoric of “change we can believe in” to meet “the urgent necessity of now”.

This was further exasperated by the Senate leadership who, seeing in the young man from Illinois the next presidential contender, worked to keep the young Jedi from association with any legislation that could in any way be seen as ‘controversial’. Arriving late to the dance and prevented from showcasing any leadership on behalf of any of the constituent elements within the party, Obama emerged as a broadly appealing alternative to the mess in Washington but with no record of having waded in to clean it up. It was left to rhetoric, not deeds, to define this candidacy.

When reaching the point where patience runs out my father would say “don’t tell me what you’re going to do, show me what you’ve done”. Talk is cheap he was saying in his own inimical way. It is one’s actions that define, in the last analysis, who one is and what one is about. By heeding the counsel of the party leadership and avoiding the trenches he could appear to be ‘above the fray’ and speak eloquently of ‘transcending’ the divisions of our nation’s capitol but such a stratagem did nothing to define who he is.

When emerging on the national political stage it is incumbent on the party’s nominee to stand before the assembled and claim a political tradition. Who are you? that is the lingering question answerable by words and deeds. By words in that the newly anointed speaks of the long political tradition that is his party and what it stands for, highlighting through the emphasis of this or that part of the historical record where in the spectrum he stands. Likewise his or her actions: Has he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the unions in their fight for a living wage? Has he fought rescumlican efforts to gut the 40 hour work week? Has he stood with the environmentalists? Through word and deed each party assesses its candidate. In terms of direction is he a Teddy Roosevelt or a Chester Arthur; is he an FDR or a James Buchanan. Judging administrative ability is he a Dwight Eisenhower or a Richard Nixon; is he an FDR or a Jimmy Carter. Simply put does he represent reform or is he a stalwart, and underlying is the question of whether he is competent enough for it to matter anyway. These were the lingering questions facing the voters in 2008 and the answers from either camp were not forthcoming.

We were left grasping at straws; for both candidates were, in effect, straw men whose substance, such as they were, were well hidden beneath layers of Madison Avenue imaging countered by the misrepresentations and outright smears attendant every political campaign. And into the breach the rescumlicans moved to fill the void by hurling as much shit as they could in an effort to besmirch the young Jedi. First there was the Reverend Wright Broo-ha-ha. Then the attempt to brand him a Muslim and all that implies in post 9/11 America. Then after the election a full-fledged assault labeling him by degrees a socialist, a fascist, a Stalin, a Hitler. Finally, when all else failed they would question his very legitimacy to the office claiming that he was a foreign born citizen of Kenya, and so the midwife Orly Taitz gave birth to what became known as the “Birthers”. A few months later they would complete the bookend by introducing the concept of “ObamaCare” “Death Panels” creating a so-called “Deathers” movement. The purpose of this organized and well-heeled campaign was to not only smear the otherwise pristine image of the new president but in so doing attribute a “foreignness” and, therefore, sinister “un-American” quality to his administration. In other words, to de-legitimize this presidency. Cries to “take our country back” arose giving voice the full-throated fear of howling citizens made more menacing in that he is our first African American president. Back from whom one might ask. Given the nearly lily-white nature of the aging boomers that swelled the “Tea-bagger” movement the answer is as menacing as it is obvious. Take it back from the carpet-baggers and scalawags who have hijacked our government for the purpose, presumably, of introducing a new era of Jim Crow.

December 23, 2010: The Gathering Storm, Go It Alone, Relative Assurance

There were two problems concerning the 2008 election cycle. The first is that unlike 1932 the impending economic collapse was, through swift action, averted. Hardship, when it came, was much more divisive, falling upon the working poor and only part of the middle class. The upper classes suffered only momentary reversals soon ameliorated by the application of the salve of Federal largesse. So too with the upper middle class, which was barely inconvenienced. But the middle class and lower middle class continued to suffer the pummeling, as had the working poor, of the last four decades. The result was that unlike 1932, the new Administration came to power with not nearly the congressional majorities and, in the Senate, a majority hanging on the uncertain votes of Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman and Blanche Lincoln. The second was that the political process produced in both candidates for the presidency men who, for vastly different reasons, did not possess the political capital with which to deal with these problems.

Inauguration day proved to be a bright and sunny gala event, but there were ominous signs about for anyone with eyes to see. At the congressional lunch that afternoon, Senators Kennedy and Byrd were taken from the gathering, both suffering from failing health, and about the new president stood not the reincarnation of the New Dealers but the very architects of this miserable crisis.

In 1999 after 13 presidential vetoes, the Clinton Administration, at the urging of Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and his underling Tim Geithner, signed off on a Republican backed repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. Passed during the Depression the Glass-Steagall Act prohibited Banks and lending institutions from investing in the stock market. The purpose of the act was to prevent a crash on Wall Street from threatening the financial institutions of this country. For sixty years the United States had experienced the usual ups and downs of the business cycle, had its stock market bubbles, its boom times and its financial hardships. But for sixty years we had no financial crisis; economic downturns and recessions to be sure, but we had no financial crises portending another Great Depression.

All that began to change as the “Boomers” came to adulthood and began the long and determined process of getting their hands about the throat of the economic goose that lays the golden egg; that is the systematic dismantling of the New Deal. Among the first casualties, during the Nixon years, was the removal of the requirement that one must hold stock for a given period of time—45 days as I remember it—under severe penalty. This provision worked to take the ‘volatility’ out of the market and reduce speculation and, by extension, speculative bubbles. By the time the Clintons came to power the old New Deal safeguards had been largely dismantled in favor of the Republican Market fetish with only Glass-Steagall remaining as the main bulwark of protections. Having learned nothing from the Savings and Loan Crises and scandal in the wake of the Reagan years, the new ‘centrist’ Democrats completed the coup de grace by finally ridding Wall Street of the last impediment to grand larceny. And so with the banks and the insurance and the financial houses merging, with the mixing of stocks with savings, banking and real estate, and the movement of investment capital into the ever more esoteric instruments of derivatives, credit-default swaps, and hedge funds, the economic order became ever more exploitive; and, with an ever greater portion of the wealth landing in ever fewer hands, unstable. And so, by the time the Clintonites had handed power over to ‘Ol Two-Cows’, the conditions were ripe for the fleecing of the economy on a truly grand scale; and the creation, by way of the so-called “day traders” of economic instability the likes we haven’t seen since Herbert Hoover.

It took nearly 8 years for the ‘casino days’ to give way to another great economic calamity, but the Federal Reserve had learned enough from past experience, and the Republican minority had enough dog in the fight to move with some alacrity to meet the emerging crisis, at least while it was on their watch. Not so after power was handed back to the custodians of sound public policy. As inauguration day approached Republican support for sound economic policy--even the bail-out of their Wall Street benefactors—evaporated in the name of the true god of Republicanism: unlimited political expediency. It became clear, as he assumed the reins of power, that Obama would have to go it alone.
One forgets that on that cold March morning in 1933 when FDR stood on the capitol steps and declared that “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself” that not only had the crisis developed from a Wall Street collapse into a full-fledged world-wide Depression, and that after over three long years of suffering and an unemployment rate estimated at 25%, the voters had returned an electoral majority of three quarters of the House and two-thirds of the Senate. We also forget that FDR had been a national public figure for over a decade. History records in 1920 the sweeping victory of the son of Blooming Grove as Harding and Coolidge went about the business of repudiating Wilson’s “New Freedom” by putting the scions of Wall Street back in the saddle. What we don’t remember is that the Democratic candidate for Vice President was none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Subsequent to the electoral defeat the nation watched his life threatening battle with polio and his long recuperation, his rise to the governorship of New York, and his emergence as the leading contender for the 1932 presidential nomination. When he stood on the capital steps, the country had a general understanding of the man in which they had placed so much hope.

Likewise with Eisenhower who, as wartime commander, had given the nation long exposure to his leadership and its capabilities, emerging as a national figure in whom one could place great trust. The same could have been said about Lyndon Johnson who had served a long time in the congress and had emerged as a national political figure as Senate Majority Leader. Nixon, although less trustworthy, had established formidable foreign policy credentials and, given the realities of the Cold War, went a long way toward establishing political confidence. Likewise Gerry Ford who had been on the national political stage for over a decade as House Minority Leader before becoming, as a product of the Watergate Scandal, the consensus candidate to replace Nixon.

The great undoing began in 1968. The “Boomers” coming of age coincided with that tragic year of violence and assassination. Beginning with the disillusion brought by the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the protests and riots, the remnants of the disillusioned and the ‘New Left’ converged upon the Democratic National Convention creating a backlash so violent that the party determined to reform itself root and branch. Creating the McGovern Committee, George McGovern would transform the party rules governing the Presidential nominating process and in so doing vaulting himself, by 1972, to the party’s nomination. The process, when completed, would transform the Democratic Party opening it to women and minorities, and vastly increasing the number of primaries, taking the party’s nomination from the hands of a few political ‘king-makers’ like Chicago’s Richard J. Daley and placing it in the hands of ‘the people’. There were other, unintended, consequences. First by making the nomination a long primary battle. in which voter turn out is consistently low compared to the general election. the reforms greatly increased the power of single-issue groups. Secondly, by eliminating the ‘winner-take-all” nature of the primary results in each state in favor of proportional allocation of convention delegates, the reforms greatly increased the length of the campaign. Lastly the reforms, until the moneyed interests created new levers of control, created the opportunity for absolute unknowns to seize the nomination.

As early as 1972 the consequences of the party’s reforms became evident. Nominating a relative unknown Senator from South Dakota the party presented a convention that gave voice to every single issue group within the Democratic coalition. The result as McGovern himself was to ruefully observe years later, was that “I opened the doors and three million people ran out”. There were other consequences. Not only did the middle class forsake a party that was increasingly organizing itself around single-issue social issues instead of broad-based bread and butter issues, but placing the nomination in honorable but uncertain hands did nothing to instill confidence. The result was another convention circus and a Nixon Landslide.

The Democrats were handed the election, in spite of their reforms, by the criminal ineptitude that characterized the dark side of the Nixon personality. What emerged was a newly elected president who found himself, on inauguration day, at polar opposites of where FDR had stood a generation before: as an absolute unknown using the speech to begin the process of defining himself before the American people.

Who is this man? That is the lingering question every voter faces when making the lonely decision in the voting booth. It’s always a ‘pig-in-a-poke’ but only relatively so. There are times when the process gives us some assurances. But, increasingly, in recent years not. With Reagan we could be assured that we would be heading in the wrong direction. With Bush less so. But with the emergence of Clinton and Obama we have men achieve the presidency with no record of fighting and, on occasion, winning on behalf of the coalition that is the party. The result is that we invest our hopes and aspirations into a nearly absolute unknown. The new President emerges with support a mile long but an inch deep.

Let me put it another way. Of the great mischief that the “Boomers” have visited upon the republic nothing, except perhaps their fooling with the tax code, nearly compares with the rage for term limits. The great winners of term limits are the lobbyists, special interests, and the executive. Previously a newly elected member of the house or senate would go about spending his first years doing constituent services, voting to support broad-based economic and social programs, and bringing home the ‘bacon’ to his or her district. Over time, although a constituent would find fault with a vote here or there, the citizens would learn to trust his judgment. This would give a member of the legislature, and should that person become governor, the trust needed to have the political capital necessary to govern. So too in national politics. By watching Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan emerge to national prominence the public could register approval or disapproval with relative assurance. The supporters of these men when, as when Reagan moved to raise taxes, could blame it on subalterns and demand “let Reagan be Reagan” knowing his heart if not his head. Not so with Carter, the Bushes, Clinton and now Obama.

December 17, 2010: The No-Nothing Party, Icon of Idiocy, Chump Change

In the British sitcom “Are You Being Served?” Mrs. Slocum would, when confronted with the pusillanimous machinations of management cry: “weak as water, I’m telling you they’re weak as water”. Last night, as the Democrats put the finishing touches on their era of control, the Congress passed and sent to the President extension of the Bush-Era tax cuts making complete the capitulation of hope to the forces of greed.

So ends the Nancy Pelosi era as House Speaker. For her part she has done a marvelous job of advancing the interests of the middle class for the well being of the country. The problem has been the United States Senate which, through the unprecedented use of the filibuster, has proven itself the most dysfunctional institution in America. The House has passed a record number of landmark bills. But over 400 such acts sit languishing in the Senate which, because of abuse of arcane rules, needs 60 votes to act. The result is that the Rescumlicans have been able to engage in a “scorched earth” policy of opposing nearly every act short of capitulation by this White House, backing away from even their own proposals--like low interest loans to small businesses, pay-as-you-go congressional spending restraints, and creation of a bipartisan deficit reduction panel--once the White House has signed on.

There were early signs of trouble before the newly elected President was even sworn into office. Confronting an international economic collapse, he had signed on to the Bush era TARP legislation to bail out the banking system and the troubled insurance giant AIG to the tune of nearly 700 billion dollars. Already, during the waning days of ‘Ol Two-Cows, there were rumblings from the idiot wrong ready to let the International House of Cards collapse on their own watch. But, knowing that the Democrats would do the responsible thing, they were given the luxury of voting no despite the tearful pleas on House Minority Leader John Boner. Responsibility and sound public policy are anathema to these fools. As the upcoming inauguration approached and the incoming administration was scurrying for support for additional legislation to fund the government, stabilize the markets, and stimulate the economy--then hemorrhaging nearly 700,000 jobs a month--the new administration could muster only three Rescumlican votes in the Senate and none in the House. It was a pattern that was to repeat itself, with very rare exceptions, for the first two years of the Obama Administration.

De ja vu. Alas, we have been here before. I’ve seen that movie too. Re-reading Bob Woodward’s The Agenda, about the opening days of the Clinton Administration I was reminded once again of the behavior of the idiot wrong when the public has had the temerity of denying them their “god-given” right to rule. The remnants of the Clinton Administration that Obama had gathered about him could and did tell him that you cannot reason with fools, but to no avail. The Rescumlicans, in their ceaseless efforts to smear the historical record, are forever telling us that it was the Rescumlican Congress under the leadership of “Baby Huey” Gingrich that brought about balanced budgets and budget surpluses. The problem with that argument, as always, is the historical record keeps getting in the way. As Woodward recalls, and as the congressional record records, Clinton made the first moves at deficit reduction by instituting massive spending cuts in 1993 to the tune of around 180 billion dollars. He also completed a long series of tax increases, begun under Reagan and continued by Bush the Elder to address the failure of the Reagan Era tax cuts to reduce deficits, by raising the marginal rates on the richest Americans to 39%. The reason the Clinton Administration pursued this policy was that they thought they could lower interest rates and in so doing Americans could refinance homes and restructure debt. With lower interest rates Americans would then have more money to spend creating, it was hoped, a bigger stimulus to the economy than would happen through deficit spending. This adoption of conservative monetary orthodoxy made sense when interest rates, then at near record levels, were throttling the economy. Nevertheless this singular feat of political courage in the name of sound fiscal policy was accomplished with not a single Rescumlican vote in either the House or Senate. In fact Al Gore, then Vice President of the United States, had to cast an historical tie-breaking vote in the senate to pass the bill 51-50. This was two years before “Baby Huey’s” infamous ‘contract on America’ and the Rescumlican control of the Congress. Nevertheless the right-wing echo chamber has been convincingly making the argument that it was the Rescumlican ‘brake’ on the excesses of the ‘tax-and-spend’ liberals that created the surpluses and the prosperity. The result is that the No-Nothing party has been able to engage in a ‘scorched-earth’ policy of voting against virtually every Democratic attempt to right the ship of state and, by delaying economic recovery, reap the political harvest.

The situation was further inflamed by Rusty rush to judgment Limbaugh who announced shortly after the inauguration that he hoped for the failure of the Obama administration saying that if Obama wins, America will lose. This despite the awful beating the country had taken at the hands of the conservatives. Nevertheless there followed a brief comedy of errors in which several leading Rescumlicans, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Rescumlican national chairman Michael Steele among others took umbrage with the fatuous blowhard, over one or another of his daily pronouncements, only to quickly call into his program and genuflect before this “icon of idiocy”. It became quickly understood that to stray from the ‘party line’ would, by incurring the wrath of those that nearly monopolize the public airways and the cable talk shows, mean the humiliation of publicly bowing and scraping before the tribunes of greed. What followed, after an all-too-brief period, was the public spectacle of those responsible for governance quickly falling to their knees to snort every emanation from the backsides of this corpulent, drug-addled, intolerant fool.

One of the last things the senile old actor did before leaving office was repeal the so-called ‘fairness doctrine’ as it pertained to broadcast media. Leaping into the breech Limbaugh has, through outrageous and inflammatory commentary, spawned a virtual cottage industry of right-wing howlers and hate mongers nearly 450 of which now dominate talk radio and have, in recent years, invaded our homes through the open sewer that is becoming cable television. The result is that the well of public discourse has been poisoned as charges real or imagined--and more imagined than real--fill the public airwaves. The recent flap over Obama spending 200 million dollars a day on a trip to India, involving a tenth of the U.S. Naval fleet is a case in point. Any damn fool knows that not since the middle of the last century has the President traveled by boat. Nevertheless the wholly fatuous charge was picked up from some obscure Indian publication and. never fact-checked, made it’s way by the usual channels unto Fox Noise and talk radio as god’s own truth. Similarly the Shirley Sharrod case in which an employee of the Agricultural Department was brutally savaged by Glenn Beck and Fox Noise forcing her resignation only to find on examination that her remarks were taken grossly out of context and what she actually said was precisely the opposite of what was implied by the reporting. These episodes, and there are far too many to be repeated here, demonstrate the ability of the idiot wrong to not only lift things out of context but to create issues out of whole cloth and present them as fact following Joseph Goebbels practice of repeating the lie often enough until it is believed.

Nowhere was this dictum demonstrated to more telling effect than the Rescumlican so-called ‘grass-roots’ but in actuality ‘astro-turf’ campaign to derail health reform. Nakedly acting in the interests of the insurance cartel, Dick Armey--a veteran of misrepresentations on this issue dating back to his smears of the Clinton era health care reform effort--and other Rescumlican operatives organized assaults on ‘town-hall’ meetings by inflaming the public over the alleged creation of “death panels”. This is, of course, fatuous nonsense. There was no basis to the charge. In fact rationing of health care services, which has often led to people being denied care in life threatening or life ending situations, already exists in the form of insurance company policies and practices. Care is denied for pre-existing conditions. Caps were installed on some care. Nevertheless this cry was picked up by the howlers on the wrong and repeated by their leadership finding expression in that mindless half-governor from Alaska and, famously, in Senator Charles Grassley’s remark about the government “pulling the plug on grandma”. What ensued, through these antics, was a year-long food fight involving the backing and filling of one administration position after another until, in the end, we were left with a perfectly Rescumlican health care plan, one that would have made Mitt Romney, in previous incarnations, proud. First to be sacrificed before ‘negotiations’ even began was the single-payer option. In effect, it would be Medicare for everyone. This has been part of the basic Democratic Creed since Truman and what was generally understood to be what Health Care meant. The retreating administration then drew a line in the sand saying that any bill would have to include a ‘robust’ public option. Facing further opposition and a storm of protests from shills of the cartel, the ‘public option’ too was cast aside. Without a single “No-Nothing” vote Health Care now became health care insurance reform or as Wendell Potter, former industry spokesman turned critic, called it the “Health Insurance Guaranteed Profit Act.”

Gone are the days of joy and hope. Gone are the visions of massive ‘shovel-ready’ projects designed to put America back to work while rebuilding its decaying infrastructure. Gone are visions of new technologies like solar, high speed internet and rapid rail. Gone are visions of “spreading the wealth around a little” as Obama so succinctly put it to ‘Joe the Plumber’. Once again a miserable bargain has been struck: a paltry extension of unemployment benefits in exchange for massive tax breaks for the wealthy including reductions in the estate tax. Once again we are left gnawing the bones thrown us by Boner and the economic royalists. “Change we can believe in” has become chump change rattling our otherwise empty pockets.

December 15, 2010: Northwest of Custer, The Farm, Damn Democrats

“Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them ---The Beatles “In My Life”

Just northwest of Custer, Michigan at the intersection of Tuttle and Hansen roads lies an old one room schoolhouse where my father was educated. About a quarter mile east on Hansen rests a ten acre plot of land upon which is located an old farmhouse and several out buildings. Known colloquially as “The Farm”, it is the place where my grandparents brought the family in the early 30’s to weather the Great Depression and upon which they lived, with my great uncle, the rest of their lives. The land had been in the family since my great-grandfather settled there in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and where, having divided the land among his heirs, the portion upon which the old farmhouse was built had fallen into the possession of my great uncle. The “folks”, as my grandparents were affectionately known, took up residence living off the crops they could raise and becoming bee keepers in order to generate the cash necessary for medical care, clothes, transportation and the other necessities of life. It was a frugal existence. The house built along the back of the property was situated at the end of a long four hundred foot driveway that divided the land into two fields in which beans, corn and wheat were raised. There was a vegetable garden on the west side of the house with a strawberry patch, and a fruit orchard on the east side featuring apple and peach trees. On the northeast corner of the property lay the “swamp”, a heavily wooded minor depression on the clay fields which held about four feet of water, in some parts year round, and consumed about a fifth of the land area. Behind the swamp was located the “bee house” and the bee hives. Here in this self-contained unit “the folks” resided until the viccitudes of old age called an end to the grand experiment in what would become an unheralded version of Walden Pond.

The difference, of course, was that these people--unlike Thoreau-- had come to stay. Descendants of Methodist preachers and children of the late nineteenth century’s “Grange“, “Greenback” and “Progressive” movements my great-grandmother and later her daughter were to work with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1914, while my great uncle was studying for a short time at Michigan State College, now known as Michigan State University, my grandmother would join her brother in demonstrating for Women’s Sufferage. Here were turn of the century progressives hardened by the stern lessons of the “Great War”, as the First World War was originally known, and adherents to the conclusions of the Nye Commission that the great calamity was caused by international financiers and the greed of the munitions industry. Later, with the bitter harvest that was the 1930’s another layer of distrust of banks and “eastern money” encrusted the attitudes shared by a whole generation concerning the “economic royalists” as Roosevelt would call them.

Going to the farm, as late as the 1960’s, was like stepping back into the early twentieth century. It wasn’t simply that these were the formative years for these people, although that had a great deal to do with it, it was that hard times and an enforced frugality had brought slow changes to the landscape. For instance, although rural electrification had brought power to the countryside with the New Deal, for economic reasons--principally the decade or so in life normally allotted the most productive-- they were consumed by the hardships and the aftermath of the great international economic collapse that was the 1930’s. By the time America, and the world, would emerge from the calamity, which had found relief only as a result of another great war, my grandfather born in 1890 would be 55 years old and nearing retirement. The result was that, for our purposes, rural electrification had not yet reached Hansen Road. To go to the farm would find you in a bit of a time warp, back to that place romanticized in my youth on endless television serials, the rural “west” minus, of course, the horses. Here one would confront an attached “out house” to which one would retreat through a covered “wood shed” attached to the house. Here one would find not electric lights but kerosene lanterns. Here one would encounter meals prepared on wood burning stoves and water drawn by a hand pump located in the house.

Here, in this simple place, one would find some concessions to modernity. No television but there were some electrical appliances, a radio I remember always tuned to FM with which they could listen to classical music from the Interlocken broadcasts, run from a gas powered generator and a windmill attached to a series of auto batteries. There was some refrigeration in the form of a twelve volt system. Later, I remember not when, standard electrical lines were brought in but I was much older by then. What I remember most was that these people, although poor and isolated by most community standards, nevertheless were active in the Grange, the rural agricultural movement dating back to the previous century and an integral part of what constituted the “Progressives”. They held weekly discussion gatherings with fellow friends and farmers, and were avid readers of the “Progressive” magazine and other such publications. I can remember in the late 1950’s sitting on the living room floor playing with the toys and listening to discussions over my head concerning the writings of John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Marx and Engels, Charles Darwin. There were discussions about religion, philosophy, economics, and a thing called ecology. Yes, as early as the 1950’s, years before Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring”, my great uncle, holding forth on the evils that would befall the great lakes upon the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, would speak of the ecology and our responsibility to it. They practiced what they preached, nothing was wasted and nearly everything was recycled. When they moved off the land what was left after a century of living could have been placed in a couple of paper bags. Later, after grandfather had passed and grandmother moved to town, I took my cassette recorder and sat her down and recorded a series of conversations lasting about six hours. I did this not simply for personal reasons but to capture, for the record, a true turn-of-the-century progressive. Here were all the years of living and the wisdom it produced, here were all the contradictions implicit in the ethic of the nascent social engineer. When she moved from the farm I helped her gather a few last items. Upon her bureau, representing polar opposites, were two prominent portraits: one a drawing of Jesus Christ, the other a photograph of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known to the world as Lenin.

When I search the center of my soul it is here, at “the farm”, I always return. It was here that I sat at grandmother’s knee and listened as she told me about my place in the cosmos. She talked about our being descendants of one John Kaye who invented the “fly shuttle”, the finishing touches on what was to become the modern mechanized loom. It was this innovation that is said to have industrialized the textile industry, the first such industry to enter the modern age. For this reason, I suppose, there has always been an undercurrent of guilt in the family for having launched the industrial revolution. We tried to make up for it, she would almost apologetically intone, citing another relative who, due to involvement in labor agitation, was reportedly placed aboard a convict ship bound for Australia only to jump ship and land in America. My great-grandfather, contracting tuberculosis from years in the textile mills, left England and came to America as a man of the cloth doing missionary work among the Indians in Iowa before putting down roots in Western Michigan. Here were living links to the living conditions of the working classes at the beginning of the industrial revolution, conditions that inspired the works of everyone from Charles Dickens and Karl Marx to Upton Sinclair. While grandmother could and did take issue with the theology and the prognostications of those on the far left, she related a telling truth: whatever their shortcomings one cannot fault the descriptions of what was clearly before their eyes. Truth I was later to confirm for myself laboring with migrant workers in the fields of Western Michigan.

It was here that I would make a periodic pilgrimage to see “the folks”. I remember one such visit in 1964. We were at Ludington visiting relation on my mother’s side of the family. Sitting with my family in my great grandmother’s living room my uncle asked “have you been to see the folks?” “What?” I replied. “The folks” he said, knowing that the meaning was generally understood. “No”, said I, being only 15 at the time I was too young to drive. “Let’s go see them” he said, and we got up and set out on highway 10 due east past Scottville to Custer.

Going to the “farm” was always an experience. The front of the farmhouse had this large picture window which looked out over the front yard, past the big maple tree and down the long driveway to the old gravel road. It seemed as if grandmother spent her entire life looking out the window for as soon as a dust cloud would emerge and she would see a car turn toward the drive she would bound out of the front door and be halfway across the lawn before you could get out of the car. What would follow would be a series of questions like “do you have all your teeth?” as part of a general inquiry into your health and well being. Then would follow long discussion about what one was doing with one’s life and about one’s family leading to broader talk about the community and the world in which we live. Whenever you went to see “the folks” you were expected to stay for dinner and, as the dinner hour approached, grandmother would repair to the old wood stove and yield the floor to my great uncle and, on occasion, my grandfather.

They say that opposites attract. It was certainly the case of my grandparents on both sides of my family. My grandmothers were cerebral, aloof, analytical, judgmental. My grandfathers were earthy, affable men who worked with their hands and could easily have been ward heelers for Tammany Hall. So it was no surprise when grandpa came up to me, during a rare lull in the conversation, and, getting directly to the point, asked: “are you a Democrat, Joe?” “Yes, I am”, I replied. “Good”, said he, “damn Goldwater, warmonger.” Then followed, through expletives, an oblique reference to the lessons of the great wars and the findings of the Nye Commission.

Four years later, during the height of the campaign season, I once again set out one early Sunday morning to see “the folks”. Leaving a note at home that I had gone north and would be back in time for work later that evening, I set out on my seventy five mile pilgrimage. Once again the scene was repeated: Grandmother went through her usual perorations, finally grandfather was permitted a few moments. Again, directly to the point of paramount importance: what are your political leanings and, by extension, the character of your soul. “Are you a Democrat, Joe?” came the gruff question. “You bet I am” said I. “Not one of those Johnson Democrats are you?” he asked suspiciously. “No, I’m not”, I replied, saying something to the effect that I was doing some work in the Kennedy campaign. “Good”, he said as if to pass favorably on my demonstrated ability to discern right from wrong, “Johnson’s a damn warmonger!” “I suppose it doesn’t matter though”, he said, after a long silence. I was taken aback, Johnson had announced his retirement and Humphrey was about to take his place. “Why not?” I asked. After a brief pause he said: “Oh, the damn Democrats…they take our good socialist ideas and water them down”.