Monday, November 28, 2016

The Revolution IS What It Managed To Be And Not What It Wished To Become

I was originally going to write a really long-winded obituary on Fidel, but it's that point in the semester when I'm typically just too tired to think straight (coming off of stuffing myself full of food for a week probably doesn't help).

There's very little I can add to the conversation that hasn't already been said. Castro was a hero to many, a villain to many others, with many more holding complicated feelings toward him. Regular readers of this blog will have little difficulty guessing where I fall on that spectrum (though for those having trouble, I tend to agree with Nelson Mandela, a man Castro defended while my own president called him a terrorist).

Really the only surprise to me in the aftermath of his death was finding out how many liberals and other shades of the left despised him. While I typically hate the hand-waving condescension of saying people have fallen for propaganda, I guess if you call someone a brutal dictator enough, most people will believe you. I personally was accused of falling for propaganda when I happened to mention the oft-cited statistic that even though Cuba is a tiny island nation under embargo from most of the world, they manage to have significantly lower infant mortality rate than the United States. And maybe my accuser was right; if anyone is going to be peddling pro-Cuba false stats, it's gotta be the CIA. I guess maybe the 639th assassination attempt is killing him with kindness?

But yeah, Castro had his worts, as does any world leader. But because he was considered an enemy of the US, his sins are foundational and unchanging, unlike the many sins of the US, which are accidental and non-consequential. This leads to the bizarre spectacle of President Obama condemning the human rights violations of the Cuban government while he runs a literally lawless torture prison on Cuban soil.

While I searched around for the words to capture the heights and lows of Fidel's life, as is usually the case, it turns out someone else already said it better. So rather than ramble on any further, I'll instead offer my official endorsement of the poetic words of Eduardo Galeano on Fidel's life and legacy:

His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity.
And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like Granma, no Frenchman would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo.
And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices.
And in that his enemies are right.

But some things his enemies do not say: it was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders' bullets, he faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane, he survived 638 attempts on his life, his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony, and it was not by Lucifer's curse or God's miracle that the new country managed to outlive 10 US presidents, their napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.

And his enemies never mention that Cuba is one rare country that does not compete for the World Doormat Cup. And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what it managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and wider thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.

And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.

And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of its people, and also of the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castile.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Mass Movements: The Silver Lining of The Trump Victory

I went to a large meeting last night centered on how we should respond to the election and how we can build movements and connections to resist what are most likely some terrible policies and laws coming our way in the next few years. The meeting itself was fairly useless, having obviously been thrown together last minute and with extremely little planning, but it was nonetheless nice that a hundred or so people showed up on such short notice. Better than nothing, etc.

But one speaker at the event enunciated a lot of what I've felt post-election, especially the way so many on the left have responded with their collective rendering of their garments and gnashing of their teeth. Not coincidentally, he was also the only person of color speaking at the event (again, pretty poorly organized, but that's not the point of this post).

He led off by talking about how he had joked before the election that he kinda wanted Trump to win, if only because it would make white people as nervous as Black people are every day in America. And as he pointed out, it sure does seem like a lot of white people just now realized America is a racist nation. It's not like Trump invented all of this; he capitalized off it, meaning it obviously predated him by quite a bit (I'd say by roughly 400 years, but that's a different conversation).

Perhaps the strongest point this speaker made, though, was in directly asking the assembled crowd how many of them would be attending an emergency anti-racist organizing meeting if Clinton had won the election. While a few in attendance sheepishly raised their hands, it was obvious his point hit home for many (as it damn well should). He went on to explain in much greater eloquence than I can recreate here that the upshot of Trump winning is that it forces white America to confront what Black American already knew -- that there is an incredibly strong current of racism in this nation which is barely concealed, but concealed enough so that comfortable people who don't want to notice it don't have to. But Trump's election removed what little cover this racism (and sexism, and homophobia, and nativism, etc.), forcing these same people to finally reckon with it.

While deserving of it's own post on another day, much of this is due to the blindness encouraged by the two-party system, in which anything done by their side is bad and anything done by my side is good, irrespective of what that action is. As Glenn Greenwald has exhaustively covered, the exact same policies and actions liberals condemned as borderline-fascist under Bush became ideas they cheered and defended under Obama. Hell, often times these liberals defended things Obama did that were objectively worse than those of Bush; while many were quick to denounce Bush granting himself the right to wiretap phones without warrant or any form of oversight, these same folks were conspicuously quiet (or even worse, in favor of it) when Obama granted himself the right to murder anyone he wanted without warrant or any form of oversight. Regardless of your politics, if you find warrantless wiretap a bigger cause for concern than warrantless murder, well...you have a very inscrutable set of beliefs.

So a silver lining is that at least the terrible policies of the next four years won't have the cover of a putatively progressive president behind them, thus allowing people who would otherwise oppose them to actually oppose them. Take, for instance, immigration -- there is currently quite a bit of concern among liberal America that Trump's policies will lead to the deportation of upwards of 3 million people. And these folks are right to be concerned! That would be tragic and indefensible. But what these same folks seem to conveniently ignore is that is roughly the number of people the Obama administration has deported. In fact, the Obama administration has deported more people than any presidential administration in the history of our nation. And yet somehow that wasn't really concerning to these people who are now super concerned about the people Trump might deport (and if he's able to do so, it's only because Obama built such a massive deportation apparatus for him).

But the point of this isn't to make the argument that all presidents are the same so none of this matters or to chide liberals for conveniently forgetting their ideals whenever someone they like violates them (though they should be held accountable for that), but instead to again offer a sliver of hope in these dark times -- many of the people who would have stayed home during a Clinton presidency will be out in the streets during a Trump presidency. And as someone who firmly believes what happens in the streets is far more important and impactful than what happens in the Oval Office, that's actually some comfort.


Wednesday, November 09, 2016

"Gramsci and Hope In Dark Times," or "Finally! A White Guy Weighs In On The Election"


The above quote has been bandied about a bunch on my face book feed today, because all of my friends are nerds. As an unabashed Gramsci fanboy (my first cat was named Gramsci), I obviously like it. And while it's appropriate in both it's bleak realism and the fact that Gramsci was specifically writing about an instance when fascism suddenly, and to many inexplicably, gained prominence in a nation many thought (and traditional Marxist theory held) would be primed and ready for socialist revolution. His conclusions were at once both bracingly negative and outlandishly hopeful (a famous saying of his is "Optimism of the Will, Pessimism of the Intellect"), and I think much the same conclusions can be drawn from the election of Trump.

I haven't blogged here for quite awhile now, about 4 or 5 months if memory serves correct. Part of it was that as a big boy with a big boy job, sometimes shit just gets busy and I don't have time for writing long-winded rants. But a part of it was the vitrolity of this election season; I don't just mean between Trump and Clinton supporters, but also among those on the Left more generally (I'm assuming the same can be said of the Right, but I'm not privy to those arguments). I'm not so naive as to suggest that previous presidential campaigns were all high-minded rhetoric and respectful debate, but this one felt qualitatively different. While I'm rarely reticent to share my political opinions (they are, after all, the central point of this blog), it got to be fucking exhausting debating and defending every aspect of my political views, which is something I'm assuming many others felt as well.

What got to me most in this election is the constant charge of stupidity -- that is, anyone supporting any different candidate from you (and I certainly do not except myself from this criticism) for any reason is not just wrong, but stupid. A moron. Someone who can't see that their actions are going to ruin the nation, and likely, the world. On the Left, this name-calling became inexplicably intertwined with identity politics, as everyone played the Oppression Olympics to prove that their position was not only correct, but the only morally defensible position that can be taken. You're privileged if you're voting for anyone other than Hilary, you're privileged if if you're voting for Hilary, you're privileged if you're not voting, you're privileged if you vote for anyone. Take your pick -- no matter your approach to the election, you can easily find a group of people who applaud your brave stand or who condemn your selfish shortsightedness. Whichever you support probably says significantly more about you than about any sort of larger argument. Why today alone I've already been thanked for my perspective on the election and condemned as a heartless bastard. That is how the Left treats its own.

The Left's attitude toward the right, however, has been much more uniform. The response of nearly all the Left toward the outcome of this election has been pretty uniformly "How could they be so stupid?!?" They of course being those people not like me and stupid being not voting how I voted. Those people were duped by a con man. I get it; I would be lying if I said the thought didn't cross my mind while watching election results pour in.

But, as Gramsci would remind us if he were here today, that is the exact wrong conclusion to draw. Many people have written eloquent post mortems on this race (I highly recommend Thomas Frank's and Glenn Greenwald's), but I want to address the notion of treating Trump voters as uniformly and solely stupid, uniformed, racist, xenophobic, etc. as if they have no actual reasons for having voted for the man (who, just to be clear, I think is a very bad person who will make for a very bad president). This kind of argument is not only overly reductive, but at a very basic level, it doesn't even jibe with the empirical data -- Trump outperformed Romney significantly among Latinx and Black voters, as well as getting the votes of hundreds of thousands who voted for Obama twice. If his support was entirely due to social prejudice, this simply would not have happened (and again, just to be clear, these social prejudices clearly contributed, it's just that they alone do not explain the election).

To be overly simplistic myself (and I highly recommend you read the articles link above that spell this out in detail), a large number of people have been left behind by the global economy and are desperate for some sort of meaningful change in their lives. Much like in Gramsci's Italy of 1930s, the predicted populist revolt did indeed materialize, but it came from the far right instead of the far left. And, again much like in Gramsci's Italy, even the bitter cynics like me didn't really see it coming, even if we thought Clinton was a candidate especially vulnerable to the kind of (faux) populist claims Trump was making. I mean, I was nervous enough about the outcome to shred what little radical street cred I have left and vote for Clinton, even though I didn't truly believe she could lose this thing. But lose she did, and now we have the guy who's been endorsed by the KKK, with many positions that are gleefully in violation of international law and the Geneva convention, and whose only consistent policy has been of hate.

But instead of dismissing this asshole's supporters are mere simpletons, now is the time to figure out how he was able to build such appeal and defeat someone whose rise to the presidency has seemed to be a foregone conclusion since 2008. Because simply turning up our noses and musing to ourselves how those people could be so stupid, we need to figure out how to make our message more appealing than Trump's message. And here's where the hope comes in -- I think we already know how to do that. Really, when you listen to Trump's speeches, the biggest applause lines were often for things like repealing NAFTA, stopping the offshoring of jobs, bucking the corrupt incestuous political beltway, returning power to working people -- these are all standard Leftist beliefs! We can find a way to make our message more appealing than that -- we've done it before and can do it again. A good first step would be to treat Trump supporters as future allies instead of enemies to be defeated.

Here's where Gramsci comes in with some hope. As he forcefully demonstrates, anyone that seeks to govern with any legitimacy at all (e.g. not be an out-and-out fascist dictator) must exercise leadership, which in Gramsci's parlance means operating with the consent of the governed. So now our political task becomes building a movement that lets Trump and his cabinet know they are not operating with our consent (after all, less than 1/4 of the American population actually voted for the guy).

Again, we've done this before and in fairly recent memory: one president established the EPA and OSHA, instituted price controls, initiated major missile treaties with the Soviet Union, and opened diplomatic relations with communist China. These actions would still be considered far-leftist today, and they were implemented by Richard M. Fucking Nixon. Nixon! Quite the opposite of a progressive leftist!

Ol' Tricky Dick didn't do these things because he was some bleeding heart softy, he did them because the Left mobilized civil society to make it clear that he had no legitimacy to govern without doing these things. And while it's obviously far too soon to know what sort of governing style Trump will have, it wouldn't be hard to build an argument that he would be especially susceptible to public pressure, what with his seemingly constant need for validation.

So yeah, today fucking sucks and seeing someone run on a campaign of such unmitigated hate being validated in such a way is impossible not to read as setback of some kind. But often the greatest lessons are learned in setbacks, and the silver lining is that we've been able to overcome this kind of setback before. Let's take a day or two to mourn and then get back to the hard work of building that movement.