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August 21, 2018

More “Socialism” than Socialism

[self-published blog essay]

Almost exactly a year ago (Sep. 4, 2017), I posted a link to an article on socialism, including a few comments on the subject. The gist of my remarks was that, while I am optimistic about the relative open-mindedness of Millennials — namely, their willingness to even question concepts like capitalism — I am hesitant with the term socialism.

A study at Harvard University a couple years ago revealed that a thin majority of young adults (18-29 years old) do not support capitalism, while only 42 percent support it. Yet, only 33 percent support socialism. The takeaway here is that, at minimum, young adults are open to questioning the matter.

They might be unclear as to the precise meaning of those terms, but for Millennials and others, "capitalism" mainly translates as the kind of malfeasance and greed that brought down the world economy in 2008. That, as far as young adults are concerned, is sufficient reason to be suspicious.

Millennials tend not to view capitalism with the quasi-religious reverence of their parents (my generation, Generation X) and their grandparents. The latter cohort, labeled Baby Boomers, was raised on a rich diet of Cold War rhetoric and television programming that reinforced the precept that capitalist America wore the white hat, and communist Russia donned the black. Reality was irrelevant. History was irrelevant. The meaning of those words was irrelevant.

This invites a deeper analysis of why and how the Baby Boomers have made a poor showing, in many instances driving the country backwards over the last 40 years. (For the basics of what I am saying here, see Jim Tankersley’s piece in the Washington Post, Nov. 5, 2015.) My immediate concern is how they hear the word socialism.

Regardless of that generation's (and my generation's) confusion on the matter — that socialism equates to Sovietism, which it doesn't — the fact is that, when they hear the word, what is evoked are the hammer and sickle. And this will not change anytime soon, if ever. It is for this reason that I have misgivings over the word's usage.

Given the state of things — economic instability, income inequality, wage stagnation — it is unsurprising that a growing resistance is taking place. And as with any resistance, a new vocabulary emerges. Especially with Bernie Sanders's open use of the term socialism during his 2016 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, the word has reentered American politics. Adding to the phenomenon was of course last June's Democratic primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Her defeating the longtime incumbent in New York's 14th congressional district was only part of the upset; the other part was that Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Moreover, with her now being a high-wattage presence on the national stage, you will be hearing the word socialism more frequently.

My stated misgivings are my own, and I present them here merely to frame the subject. I have no illusions and am not attempting to police or alter the language; I know well that socialism is now part of the discourse. That said, a few things should be kept in mind as we near the midterms and 2020.

Last week on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Bernie Sanders stated the following: "I think the real issue is that the ideas that we've been talking about, almost without exception, are now ideas that are mainstream ideas and are supported by the vast majority of the American people." What he says here is correct. Policy initiatives like Medicare-for-all, raising the minimum wage, and free public college are in fact mainstream and enjoy majority support.

Yet, while they can maybe be labeled progressive, especially given the status quo, they are not necessarily socialist. As some have correctly pointed out, these are policy ideas that are in keeping with the New Deal, along with the more or less liberal administrations spanning the 1950s through to the 1970s.

Had the Democrats maintained and built on the notion of functioning as a true labor party, instead of marching rightward — to the point of effectively becoming the new Republican Party — these kinds of policies might very well today be their stock in trade. In other words, had they held their line and maintained a liberal/progressive orientation, the Democrats would now be, in essence, a party operating according to the same "social democratic" principles on display in Scandinavia.

The distinction here is worth noting. "Democratic socialists," like Ocasio-Cortez, take a more traditional socialist position. According to the DSA's website, "As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people."

Democratic socialism's core philosophy is therefore a kind of radical democracy, with an eye toward post-capitalism and eventual worker ownership and control of companies. Reform now, true socialism later.

Social democracy — as opposed to democratic socialism — does not advocate the overthrow of capitalism, but instead seeks to create the best possible circumstances within the capitalist model. Concepts such as basic income and universal healthcare are easily compatible with a corporatist structure. The socioeconomics of countries like Sweden and Denmark are examples of social democracies; they have promoted reform and progress in their countries, yet retain market economies, and without seeking their dismantling.

The majority of Americans support Sanders's and Ocasio-Cortez's positions (for more detail, see my 2016 article, "The Nation is Not Divided," on Counterpunch), that is, they desire a more social democratic arrangement — though are unaware of the fact. However, the majority of Americans are not in favor of revolution or overthrowing corporate capitalism. What they want is reform of the present system, which is exactly what is being proposed. What Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez (despite her DSA affiliation) are talking about is social democracy.

I feel it is important to keep these distinctions in mind, to stay focused on what the majority wants, and to not get lost in rhetoric and theory. The emphasis should be on improvement of present policy. Unfortunately, news coverage will be an obstacle. Without fail, the major news outlets are working to distract the public. While commentators and politicians to the right are always keen to use the word "socialist" as a scare tactic, the centrist-liberal media are also at work.

The New York Times has never been Bernie friendly, as it prides itself on standing guard over the left boundary of respectable liberal opinion. With the increased talk of socialism, naturally, one is seeing op-ed pieces such as Michael Tomasky's on August 5, in which he shared his "mixed feelings about this socialism boomlet" and "All these socialists coming out of the woodwork."

For the Times, anything to the left of Hillary Clinton and the new Republicans is treated with condescension; it goes without saying, in light of public opinion polls, this condescension extends to the majority of Americans.

At both Fox News and the more centrist news organizations, the disparaging commentary will continue, despite the enormous benefits that their audiences and readerships stand to enjoy from such policies. In the present atmosphere in journalism, the priorities are brand protection and ideological alignment. By playing to their audiences, their audiences are getting played.

The word socialism is out there. And many will envision statues of Lenin when they hear it. The reality is that the reforms being discussed by Sanders and others are quite feasible and supported by the majority. People might not agree on what should become of corporate capitalism; but democracy is a good place to start the conversation.

August 15, 2018

Unions and race

Good article in yesterday's Guardian about anti-unionism and its effects on African American communities.

Unlike issues such as abortion and immigration, which are basically just talking points used by politicians to get votes, labor unions are something about which Congress and the corporate sector do in fact feel quite strongly. As a result, anti-unionism in the United States can boast much success, with membership in almost perpetual decline, especially as of the 1980s.

Somewhere between presidents Carter and Reagan, the assault on labor went into high gear. "At virtually every level, I discern a demand by business for docile government and unrestrained corporate individualism," said union leader Douglas Fraser, in his resignation letter from Carter's Labor-Management Group. "Where industry once yearned for subservient unions, it now wants no unions at all."

Just this past June, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against non-union workers paying "fair share" fees to public-sector unions, a major setback to organized labor. This was merely the latest measure in the decades-long drive against unions, to weaken them with an eye toward obliteration.

Of course, anti-unionism is not unique to this country. In just about any system of governance—democracies, monarchies, dictatorships—you will historically find labor organization at the least begrudgingly tolerated, at the most violently suppressed. And the reason is easily inferred: unions represent workers, which make up most of a given population. Ideally, they offer a voice and leverage against industrial and corporate forces whose interests are in opposition to labor's. This is, to say the least, not a new story.

That one of the side-effects of anti-unionism is that it weakens black communities will be viewed by some as an added bonus. This is another case of hoping white America will support legislation harmful to the working class in general—such as tax breaks to corporations—because otherwise "they" stand to benefit. This is tantamount to encouraging white workers to "take one for the team." The problem, however, is that there is no team—just the taking. If one stocks shelves at Walmart or is a teller at Chase Bank, then the executive officers and board members at those organizations are hardly on your team.

Like the word "welfare" (see hereNew York Times, Aug. 6), efforts have been made to charge the word "union" with negative connotations. Now in my mid-forties, I have for decades heard both these terms used derogatorily, among (mostly white) blue and white collar groups. I am not surprised, but saddened, when it occurs in affluent groups, though I am always surprised (though perhaps shouldn't be) as well as saddened when I hear it voiced by working class people.

Nevertheless, public approval of unions sits at the typical 60 percent, the figure one routinely encounters in opinion polls concerning the vast majority of political issues. As with many facets of American political life, the three-fifths either votes against its interests, or lets the two-fifths make the decisions.

There is a disconnect between what we want and what we get and/or vote for. Redressing the disconnect will require speaking up, and unions are a vital tool in such an endeavor. Unions are inherently democratic institutions, and the state they are in reflects the state of that democracy.

June 9, 2018

Anthony Bourdain

I have mentioned Parts Unknown host and author Anthony Bourdain on this blog on a number of occasions. I posted reviews of his "Jerusalem" (Sep. 16, 2013) and "Iran" (Nov. 3, 2014) episodes, which were appreciative, but not uncritical.

My comments (May 31, 2014) on his acceptance video for the Voice of Courage and Conscience Media Award, however, were more positive. Bourdain was given the award from the Muslim Public Affairs Council for Parts Unknown's "Jerusalem" episode and in his statement offered important remarks about the situation in Palestine.

When critical of Bourdain, it was based on the observation that he could play it safe, politically. I felt on occasion he could have been less "New York Times" in how he approached topics where US foreign policy interests were concerned, especially with regard to episodes in the Middle East.

That said, Bourdain's work on Parts Unknown, and No Reservations (Travel Channel) before that, made enormous contributions to humanizing the people of the Middle East. His episodes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt on No Reservations are well worth watching. His trips to Beirut, for both shows, are also very good. Bourdain portrayed Arab culture and hospitality as it is, something I've had the good fortune to experience.

Not only did Bourdain humanize Middle Easterners across the region, he also humanized humans across the globe. Through hundreds of episodes, spanning multiple programs and almost 20 years, Bourdain introduced us to people, cultures, and food all over the world, and did so with humanity, honesty, humor, and inimitable style. And that world is now poorer for his absence. I am quite sorry he is gone.

May 15, 2018

US embassy ceremony in Jerusalem + blog repost

While symbolic in nature, the White House's relocation yesterday of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the latter as the nation's capital, will compound increasingly tense circumstances. In a sense, the decision rewards the rightwing government and policies of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It sends the message that "Everything is fine, keep up the good work."

The contrasting news photography from the day was a commentary in itself: images of the ceremonial unveiling of the US seal at the embassy set against images of Palestinian protesters being shot like stray dogs by Israeli snipers, over 50 reported dead.

As Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner voiced hollow words of peace at the ceremony, it brought to mind world renowned entertainers and artists availing themselves of the same rhetoric, attempting to justify performing for Israeli audiences. This also sends the message that everything is fine; that what is being done to the people in Gaza is a separate issue; that the healing power of music will bear wondrous gifts.

Though her long delay in taking a stand has been unfortunate, actress Natalie Portman's recent boycott of an award ceremony to be held in her honor in Israel is to be commended. Hopefully, more high-profile entertainers will follow Portman's dignified example (and avoid Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke's undignified example) in helping to signal that everything is not fine.

As must be mentioned, this is not a matter of choosing sides, something I have been clear about for over 15 years now. US support and diplomatic protection of Israel, as it conducts a military occupation of over 4.5 million Palestinians, is both bad for Palestine and bad for Israel. Several former senior-ranking members of Israel's security services—hardly individuals one would brand as "anti-Israeli"—have asserted as much.

Israel exists. It is a member of the UN. It possesses the same legitimacy as any other country. And it should be encouraged to progress. The White House just did the state of Israel a tremendous disservice. And pointing out that fact is precisely pro-Israeli.

. . .

Shortly after President Trump's announcement last December that he would move the US embassy in Israel, I wrote an essay entitled "Jerusalem," attempting to clarify the matter and provide what the news wasn't.

In light of yesterday's relocation ceremony, I have reposted that piece here.

May 11, 2018

Trump and Iran

Former president Jimmy Carter recently stated in a CNN interview, "When a president signs an agreement, it should be binding on all his successors, unless the situation changes dramatically, and it hasn't changed." Carter of course is right. The situation regarding Iran has not changed dramatically, or undramatically for that matter.

By all accounts, Iran has been in compliance with the terms established by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has watched Iran like a hawk and has reported no violations. As mentioned in the Washington Post (May 8, 2018), the IAEA's director general, Yukiya Amano, "told the agency’s 35-nation board of governors [in March] that Iran has complied so far with every request made by his inspectors."

Iran's compliance is unsurprising. There was no evidence prior to the nuclear agreement that Iran was moving in the direction of weaponizing its low-enrichment nuclear program. They therefore have nothing to hide, and much to potentially gain economically by cooperating.

However, the agreement between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the United States, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) was never really about nuclear weapons or Iran posing an actual threat. As repeatedly expressed by members of the intelligence communities in both the United States and Israel, Iran is a rational actor. It always bears repeating that over the last hundred years, the number of countries invaded by Iran is zero. While it possesses adequate defense capabilities, Iran lacks the capacity for power projection. Iran's military budget is similar to that of Greece and smaller than that of Mexico.

Yet, for decades Iran has been painted as diabolical and devious. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran refused to operate as a US client, as it had under the Shah. In the realm of US foreign policy, this is a mortal sin. But the diplomacy between the Obama White House and Tehran—with presidents Obama and Hassan Ruhani conversing on the phone—signaled a shift. Behind all the talk of nuclear weapons was simply the possible thawing of relations.

The Obama administration apparently deemed it was time to slowly bring Tehran back into the fold. As a matter of course, this was all to the absolute horror of Israel and Saudi Arabia. If US-Iran relations reverted to the way things were before 1979, this would diminish Israeli and Saudi prestige. Hence, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's repeated and frenzied presentations and talk of Iran's "tentacles of terror."

The JCPOA was of course a good idea. Despite Iran not seeking a weapons program, transparency and prevention never hurt. No rational person wants to see Iran with nuclear weapons, in the same way that any rational person would prefer the United States and Israel and all nuclear states disarm and decommission their programs. It is worth noting that Iran advocates for the Middle East being a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Tehran is also a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel does not. Israel is not.

President Trump's withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, on the other hand, was of course a bad idea. This sentiment is naturally shared all over the world. Within the United States, only 29 percent of Americans support withdrawal from the agreement (Reuters/Ipsos). A recent poll by the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) organization, which conducts surveys of international relations scholars, revealed that 94 percent of scholars would disapprove US withdrawal.

The knock-on effects of Trump's decision remain to be seen. US withdrawal could embolden hardliners in Iran. The country's moderate president—described by the New York Times as the "chief loser" in the current situation—is being projected as weak and a dupe of Washington. Though it is impossible to determine as yet how Tehran will respond, hardline elements there are already making the case for reinvigorating nuclear activities. "We will break the cement of Arak," said one member of Iran's parliament, referring to a nuclear facility near that town (NYT, May 9, 2018).

Though Trump has left open the possibility of negotiating a new agreement, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson recently revealed an international offer to augment the one that already exists. "Britain worked alongside France and Germany to find a way forward," Johnson recently said at the House of Commons, "that would have addressed the [American] president's concerns and allowed the US to stay in the JCPOA, but without reopening the terms of the agreement." Such efforts were not successful.

Much like Trump's approach to healthcare, he would rather destroy something rather than improve something. He would rather create instability and chaos, which have serious and real effects on people's lives, a non-priority for this president. What will unfold in the short to midterm is unknown and unpredictable.

Nevertheless, the White House's decision only adds to an already unstable region, possibly creating the conditions for nightmarish scenarios. Unfortunately, anything is possible. President Trump's specific calculations are unknown, but likely involve Israeli and Saudi interests.

When one filters out the noise of personality and the endless scandals, Trump's administration bears a distinct resemblance to that of George W. Bush. And the message Bush sent to the world after 9/11 was, if you wish to be left alone by the United States (or Israel), you'll need a nuclear weapon. That message has been broadcast once again.

March 12, 2018

Film: The Young Karl Marx

I recently watched and very much enjoyed director Raoul Peck's new film, The Young Karl Marx. (It's still in theaters, but is also available to rent on the major platforms.)

The movie spans a short segment of the young philosopher's life, roughly five years, concentrating on Marx's relationships with his wife, Jenny, and his close friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels. The narrative culminates with the authoring of the The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, just prior to Marx turning 30.

Instead of a full review, suffice it to say that Peck did a fine job keeping to the history and biography. While still a movie, the effort at fidelity—to people, names, events, language used, etc.—is admirable; Peck did considerable homework. It is also a good piece of filmmaking: the acting and casting are both excellent, the story well told, and the set design nicely detailed.

Also, instead of provide a primer on Marx's thought (see note below), I wish to simply express my hopes that the film reaches a sizable audience. Karl Marx is on that list of writers who are severely misunderstood and fictionalized due to a lack of reading their work. This list would include Adam Smith, Friedrich Nietzsche, Noam Chomsky, and (I recently decided) Thomas Hobbes. However, on such a list, Marx is probably at the top, especially for Americans.

For those new to Marx, I might suggest starting with the movie, actually. As mentioned, yes, it's a movie, not a documentary. But the film does a nice job of humanizing the historical figure, affording him a much needed third dimension.

Some who are new might also be a bit standoffish. This is likely on account of what you have heard your father, uncle, or grandfather say about Marx and "communism" (sermonizing about such topics tends to be a male-dominated activity). Three of the more popular distortions:

1. Marx's thought was on display in the Soviet Union, and what more proof do you need that Marxism is terrible?

2. Marx wanted people to live like ants in a colony, and because people are not ants, "socialism would never work."

3. Marx once said "I am not a Marxist," and therefore didn't believe his own philosophy.

Point 1 is simply wrong and only requires consulting some basic history; the World Book encyclopedia would probably be adequate. Point 2 is my personal favorite (the "people aren't insects" bulletin) and is based on the assumption that Marx was laying out a utopian blueprint, which he wasn't; Marx's work constitutes a methodical and philosophical critique of capitalism. And point 3, while correct in a literal sense—those are his words—Marx's point was that he was not a "Marxist" as the label was being applied in France at the time.

Some reviewers and critics have maintained the film was too intellectual, while some felt it was insufficiently so. I feel Peck struck a nice balance, allowing space for history and concepts as well as a good bit of drama and fun. I've seen it twice now and will likely go in for thirds. A movie worth checking out.


For those looking to get acquainted with Marx:

The School of Life has a ten-minute crash course on Marx on YouTube. For a very short (93 pages) and clear introduction to Marx's life and philosophy, I would suggest David McLellan's book Karl Marx. For a fully developed biography and examination of his thought, I started last year, have returned to, and recommend Jonathan Sperber's relatively recent Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (2013), which includes a good amount of historical context.

February 24, 2018

Parkland: arming teachers

After the shooting in Charleston in 2015, I posted a link to this article, entitled "Your Brain in a Shootout: Guns, Fear and Flawed Instincts."

In the piece, which appeared in Time magazine in 2013, former police officer Jim Glennon shares his experience of being involved in an actual shootout. Glennon was a police-academy trainer, and discusses the effects the stress of a shootout can have on perception and the human mind. His conclusion was that even police lack sufficient training to function proficiently in such a situation, and therefore hopes for the English teacher are rather low.

With suggestions being made by President Trump and others to arm teachers in response to the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, this article helps to cut through the cowboy-movie rhetoric that is now standard after a mass shooting.

The United States has a unique gun-violence problem (see statistics here and here). And the problem is being discussed by some, correctly, as a public-health crisis. Though gun violence is the result of multiple factors, gun-control legislation can—as the data bear out—help improve the situation. And any improvement greater than zero is worth pursuing.

My generation (I was born in 1972) and the Baby Boomers excel at criticizing millennials. The criticism is unfounded and requires considerable nerve given the track record of those two demographics. Instead, we should be listening very closely to this country's young people, especially if gun violence is an actual priority and not just an occasion to sound virile and protect the impulses of the increasingly vicious NRA.

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