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Ron Radosh

Monthly Archives: December 2009

A Foreign Policy Wish for the New Year

December 31st, 2009 - 10:37 am

Fouad Ajami has given us all the column of the year — required reading for all of us and, hopefully, for the White House on the day before the new year commences.  The academic and State Department “realists” — actually those oblivious to reality — have had their ideological depiction of the state of the world shattered this past year. The people of Iran are on the verge of revolution, and yet President Barack Obama gives out the signal that he hopes John Kerry’s proposal that he travel to Iran will save the administration’s policy of engagement. As Ajami writes:  “In the time of Barack Obama, ‘engagement’ with Iran’s theocrats and thugs trumps the cause of Iranian democracy.”

The diplomacy of freedom evident in the years of George W. Bush — a man so unjustly hated by the liberal political establishment — has been replaced by a trust in the tactic of diplomacy, to the exclusion of any support to the apostles of freedom. The Dali Lama is not welcomed in the White House, since deals with China stand above any support to the people of Tibet.

The Cuban people still suffer under the tyranny established by the Castro brothers. In place of any open support to the dissidents the regime continually beats up, imprisons, and tortures, feelers are put out by leading Democrats that now is the time to ease our pressure on the regime and to engage the Cuban oppressors. The dissidents throughout the world know that Barack Obama is not on their side. As the Iranian protestors continually ask him, “Are you on our side or that of the mullahs?” Unfortunately, they know the answer too well.  Ajami quotes the now famous statement made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Ideology is so yesterday.”  It may be for her and the administration; unfortunately, it is not the case for the mullahs or the Castros and the rulers of Syria.

Ajami bemoans the fact that President Obama has “declared a unilateral end to the ‘war on terror.’” Perhaps — and I emphasize that perhaps — the events of the past week have given him pause, and those who termed it a simple opposition to “man-caused disasters” will be demoted or fired — but don’t put any bets on it. The administration just today released a statement attacking the recent comments of Vice-President Dick Cheney. Instead of ignoring him, their tactic of past weeks, they have responded — probably realizing that the public instinctively realizes there is more truth in his words than in the actions our president has taken.  It is almost as if, as Ajami says, he was the real enemy and not the terrorists.

We are in a war with radical Islam. Will President Obama accept this reality? Our nation’s future depends on the correct answer. Or will he bring his own administration and the Democratic majority in Congress to a crashing end, making him a failed one-term president?  Let us pray that this new year will bring new policies to the White House, and that American power and leadership will be restored.

Will Obama Now Protect Us?

December 30th, 2009 - 2:16 pm

In last night’s remarks, President Barack Obama made another one of his late-in-the-game, 180 degree turnarounds. Not only did the system not work, as asserted by Robert Gibbs and Janet Napolitano after the Christmas Day incident aboard Flight 253, but now the President is calling it a “systemic failure” in our intelligence agency apparatus.  No longer is it, as Obama said earlier, an “isolated incident” committed by the “alleged” terrorist.

The government, it is clear, knows that al-Qaeda was behind the attack, had information beforehand that someone from Nigeria would be involved, and had “warning signs” that were ignored. And just as before 9/11, intelligence agencies either did not share material some of them had with the other parts of the security apparatus. It also is now known that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had engaged in much activity that gave even his father cause to worry, as President Obama acknowledged:

“It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect’s name on a no-fly list,” Mr. Obama said of the father’s warning. “There appears to be other deficiencies as well. Even without this one report, there were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together.”

In other words, the president now acknowledges precisely what all his critics said from the start — and it took two days and obviously formal notice from Rahm Emanuel and company to alert him to the truth.

We also know — as many people said from day one — that Abdulmutallab was most likely radicalized in Britain, a nation whose leaders have all but given a welcome hand to Islamic extremists out of worry that they will be judged politically incorrect.  Or as The New York Times reporter put it in typical incredulous Timespeak, “Britain remains a nation of deep Islamic ferment, where a young man like Mr. Abdulmutallab can become radicalized, perhaps without notice.” (my emphasis)

Well, perhaps if the British government shut down Wahhabi mosques run by radical clerics, instead of having the Queen knight some of them and the former mayor of London give them keys to the city, that is a problem that might quickly disappear. There have been scores of red flags writers like Melanie Phillips and others have pointed to for years about the success of Islamist mosques in London, so for the Times to write that now intelligence agencies are “are focusing on the possibility that his London years, including his possible contacts with radical Muslim groups in Britain, were decisive in turning him toward Islamic extremism” is positively alarming.  (again, my emphasis.)

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After an embarrassing few days of obfuscations and denials about the import of the terrorist attack on Northwest Flight 253 — including Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano’s claim on the Sunday talk shows that the system was working perfectly — on Monday administration spokesmen tried to claim they meant that after the failed attack the system immediately took action by beefing up security. They also said that they responded at once by notifying all international airports as well as planes in the sky.

Finally, on Monday morning, President Barack Obama addressed the public from his vacation spot in Hawaii. The statement made by the president, however, inadvertently displayed the great problems with his approach towards the jihad waged by worldwide radical Islamist terrorists.

First, President Obama said  the following: “As the plane made its final approach to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, a passenger allegedly tried to ignite an explosive device on his body, setting off a fire.” (my emphasis)  The language is that of courtroom legalese, carefully indicating that a suspect is only “allegedly” guilty of anything, until such time as a jury is convinced by a trial that he was indeed the party responsible for the crime committed.

But as the world knows, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was indeed very guilty, and only because a Dutch filmmaker sitting near him interceded and subdued him, helping put out the fire at the same time, was the plot unsuccessful. Rather than treat the culprit as a foreign national who became converted in London to the doctrines of radical Islam by mullahs at his local mosque, evidently the decision has been made to treat him as a defendant in a criminal case, with a subsequent trial in which his guilt is not to be prejudged. Although he is a foreign national, evidently he will be treated as if he were an American citizen.

Perhaps that is why at present, the government has not been able to obtain necessary DNA samples from him, since Abdulmutallab clearly does not want to voluntarily acquiesce in giving a sample to the FBI. Coercion and rough treatment, including serious interrogation about the involvement of others, could be used against the government in any ensuing trial.

One might contrast this strongly with the decision made during the Second World War by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When would-be Nazi saboteurs landed off Long Island in a sub ready to move throughout the country and engage in sabotage, the plot fell apart when one of their numbers surrendered and implicated his fellow plotters. They were all arrested and tried in a secret military tribunal, and duly executed. The public was not informed; there was no hesitancy in carrying out a tough sentence, and nothing at all said about treating them as criminal defendants in a New York City court.

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Victor Davis Hanson, in his PJM post today,  perfectly delineates where Obama and company come from. But I think Hanson misses one clear link that had been identified during the campaign, but generally ignored. This is Obama’s clear ties to the socialist movement, particularly the cadre of both the so-called Committees of Correspondence, a breakaway split from the Communist Party U.S.A. that still adheres to Marxist-Leninist thinking, and the Democratic Socialists of America, the group started by the late Michael Harrington.

The information is featured today in a left-wing blog post on the 1960s that provides evidence from Carl Davidson, once a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, and author of an old book that provided a far left perspective for social change. The blog post by Aaron Klein offers new information about Obama’s obtaining the support of the New Party during his State Senate campaign in 1996. That political party was created from both the COC and DSA, and had links to ACORN as well. It was founded by a University of Wisconsin socialist activist, Joel Rogers. Details about him may be found here.

Klein writes:

Obama’s campaign last year denied the then­ presidential candidate was ever an actual member of the New Party.

But the New Zeal blog dug up print copies of the New Party News, the party’s official newspaper, which show Obama posing with New Party leaders, listing him as a New Party member and printing quotes from him as a member.

The party’s spring 1996 newspaper boasted: “New Party members won three other primaries this Spring in Chicago: Barack Obama (State Senate), Michael Chandler (Democratic Party Committee) and Patricia Martin (Cook County Judiciary).”

The paper quoted Obama saying, “These victories prove that small-’d’ democracy can work.”

Klein then continues to bring forth new information he gathered from the DSA Chicago newsletter, which revealed that on April 11, 1996, Obama attended a New Party meeting. At that event, Obama expressed his gratitude for the group’s support and “encouraged (New Party members) to join in his task forces on voter education and voter registration.”  It continues to quote an e-mail from Carl Davidson, who revealed the following:

“A subcommittee met with (Obama) to interview him to see if his stand on the living wage and similar reforms was the same as ours,” recalled Marxist activist Carl Davidson.

“We determined that our views on these overlapped, and we could endorse his campaign in the Democratic Party,” Davidson said.

Davidson was a Chicago member and activist within the New Party. He told WND he handled some of the New Party member databases and attended most of the party’s meetings.

But Obama was a shrewd politician. He was able to bypass New Party rules, which required any candidate seeking their endorsement to formally join the organization. Davidson recalls that they decided “there was no need for him to do so…since the stand of his campaign and the New Party reform planks were practically the same.”  Their program included traditional redistributive socialist goals: “full employment, a shorter work week and a guaranteed minimum income for all adults; a universal ‘social wage’ to include such basic benefits as health care, child care, vacation time and lifelong access to education and training; a systematic phase-in of comparable worth and like programs to ensure gender equity.”

All of the above are a representative amalgam of pie-in-the-sky socialist economic programs that would ignore completely how a modern economy works, and that would quickly bankrupt the nation and destroy the creation of jobs and the ability of business to function.

It also had been revealed during the campaign- by Newsweek no less- that Obama had gone during the 1980s to the annual Socialist Scholars Conference at Cooper Union in New York City. The conference, which took a name from a group created much earlier by genuine socialist scholars (of which I was originally a part), was transformed into an activist socialist get-together from virtually every existing socialist sect in America and held panels on scores of political topics.

So we know that Barack Obama came not only from the world of rough and tumble Chicago politics, which Fred Siegel has written about both for The Weekly Standard and National Review many times during the campaign, but also from the world of radical black  nationalism exemplified by Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the church he ran and which Obama attended regularly.

This past, I think, explains Obama’s propensity to keep appointing rather low-level officials who can operate under the radar and who come from a similar radical or left-wing past. The latest appointment, perhaps not as low level, is that of Hannah Rosenthal, who started her new job last week in the State Department as the special envoy to monitor and report on anti-Semitism. With the growth of anti-Semitism in countries like Britain and France, the job  sounds important and necessary. But what was Ms. Rosenthal’s first salvo aimed at?

As an article in Haaretz reports, her first statement, issued in Israel, was a public blast at Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, for criticizing J-Street and refusing to attend its convention. This is an unprecedented act, since she made her views known on an official trip to Israel on behalf of the administration, and may be the first time an American official has attacked the personal views of an Ambassador to the US from an American ally. Rosenthal’s position is meant to stand up to anti-Semitism; yet, her first headlines have resulted instead from a defense of J-Street, the unrepresentative American Jewish left-wing group that purports to speak on behalf of the mainstream American Jewish community.

The article goes on to report that Rosenthal served on the Board of J-Street before her appointment, and previous to that, was on the Board of Americans for Peace Now, another would-be pro-Israeli group that was highly critical of Israel’s policies and was on the left-wing of the political spectrum.  Rosenthal, it notes, first met Obama in Chicago when he was a state Senator.

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For many years, since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the American New Left has had an unending love affair with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Despite the mounting of evidence that Castro transformed an authoritarian dictatorship into a prison island controlled by a Marxist-Leninist totalitarian party, with hundreds of political prisoners, the American Left’s admiration for and support of Castro has seemed to be a permanent fixture of our lives.

The view of that New Left was expressed boldly by the late C.Wright Mills, whose old book Listen Yankee!, a tome to the Revolution in which the Columbia University sociologist spoke in the name of the Cuban revolutionary addressing his US audience, asked for Americans to support their cause. As Mills wrote, “I do not worry about the Cuban Revolution. I worry for it and with it.” Already slightly disillusioned with the Soviet Union, although they were grateful for its support of Castro, they transferred the Old Left’s love for Stalin to their own love for Fidel.

Conservatives have regularly paid much attention to the Cuban reality. Over the years, Jay Nordlinger at National Review Online, on his regular Impromptus column, has alerted us to the pain and suffering of the brave dissidents in Cuba who continue to speak out on behalf of democracy, despite all the serious costs attached to their effort.  And at Frontpagemag.com, Humberto Fontova has regularly devoted himself to telling his readers the truth about Cuba.

But recently, it appears that the once monolithic support by the American Left to the Cuban Revolution is beginning to dissipate. Two surprising examples of this have just now come to light. The Chicago based radical newsweekly, In These Times, (which when it started decades ago was a weekly socialist newspaper on which both I and David Horowitz were editorial board sponsors), has now issued a special issue titled “Inside Cuba: Voices from the Island-The Revolution at 50.” (Dec.2009 issue)

The issue begins with an article by Leonardo Padura Fuentes, the country’s best known novelist, (not online) in which the author dares to ask what to many should be obvious: “If the Island is some kind of oasis for justice, equality, security, education and healthcare, why did so many Cubans want to emigrate?” In a partial answer, he writes: “The miracle is that we survive…A notable and increasing percentage of the population is impoverished and either apathetic or focused on exile as the answer.” As for their socialist economy, he says it “is dysfunctional.” Would Michael Moore read this. It might give him pause. The author’s conclusion- after noting he hopes that Raul Castro is seeking new ways to deal with their problems, is this: “The better future that was promised and dreamed of, the future that would come after so many sacrifices, continues to be postponed. Instead, there’s always talk about new and more sacrifices.”  No wonder everyone would flee if they could.

Another Cuban writer, who writes short stories and performs in a hip-hop group, Yohamna Depestre, tells us by concrete example just how difficult it is to get by on any particular day. Writing in the voice of an average citizen, who just wants to survive and hopefully get enough to eat for their family, Depestre gives us a vivid picture of how one must deal with a bankrupt and horrendous bureaucracy, and how every day there is yet another fight that is “always about money.” And Ms. Depestre works in a government publishing office.

The magazine does us a service by reprinting an online editorial that appeared in the official Cuban Communist youth paper Juventud Rebelde, in which a staff writer, Jose Alejandro Rodriguez, dared to complain about their inability to convey accurate information about their own country to its citizens, even though journalists like himself wanted to do nothing less.  Rodriguez was made that “information can get through neither our economy’s nor our society’s excessive centralization, and that hinders our democratic potential.” Who is surprised about that? If the author was, he didn’t have to wait long. As ITT’s editor notes in an addendum, “several hours after its publication, the article vanished from the site,” and was never republished or put into the newspaper’s archives. That the author framed his editorial in the terms of helping to make a really democratic socialism work helped not one bit. If his approach was a ruse, it didn’t work.

The magazine follows it with a fascinating look at the development of “Guerrilla Blogging,” the new way in which dissident Cubans are making their voices heard. Orlando Luis Pardo Laza,. Editor of a Cuban e-zine and author of several books. writes about the new blogs which continue to appear, despite the giant and often impossible steps their authors have to take to even get to a computer with access to the outside world. The article gives readers the websites to look at, and informs us of the different approaches taken by the various bloggers. Of course he gives attention to the most famous of the group, Yoani Sanchez, whose new worldwide fame has to date protected her against serious reprisal, although he notes the various serious measures the regime is contemplating to put a stop to it. Cuban official websites now refer to Sanchez  with a swastika and the words CIA written after her name. One law, which might be enforced when no one is looking, is that of “dangerous pre-criminality.” All the bloggers know that their names are on the list of those who could soon be charged with violation.

Finally, two other major articles revise views that have been recently said to prove how Cuba has changed for the better. They meant to publish an article about the reality in Cuba for gays, but the author Mario Jose Delgado Gonzales, was jailed by the regime before he could write it. Instead, ITT reprints entries from a Cuban illegal gay blog. The entries give lie to the much touted claim that the regime has ended its early policy of suppression of homosexuals. Recall that when the actor and Castro lover Sean Penn went to Cuba a few years ago, his daughter yelled at Castro for their anti-gay policy. The “Maximum Leader” told her, to Penn’s evident satisfaction, how the old retrograde macho views of the Revolution’s early years was a thing of the past.

As one reads these entries, it is clear that the reality is that, as their headline says, that “Not much has changed since Reinaldo Arenas’ time,” when gays were either thrown in maximum security brutal prisons- as was Arenas,- or in mental asylums. Forget about the radical gay agenda, that many conservatives oppose. Gays have no rights in Cuba, as the record of arrests noted in this excerpt of blogs reveals.   The second article deals with the influence and problems facing rock musicians in Cuba. For decades, rock was prohibited and viewed as dangerous and degenerate Western music that revolutionary youth had to be protected against. Written by a man called Yoss, the name used by Jose Miguel Sanchez Gomez, a noted Cuban writer and lead singer of a hard rock group. So many years since the birth of the Revolution, he writes, “rock still strikes a discordant note for some.”  He concludes: “The Cuban state…would like to take advantage of rock’s mobilizing capacity to entertain/control youth who, more and more, see their own and their country’s future as less clearly intertwined.” But they cannot, since even official groups stray from the official line, and become what he calls both “irreverent” and “profane,” necessitating a total ban.  Perhaps what they need is capitalism, which can easily co-opt and tame the incipient rebellion, making it into a profitable money-maker for record companies that have no problem with the kind of music that bothers the commissars.

The other recent exploration of Cuba, less critical than that by the Cubans who write in ITT, appears in the Dec.14th issue of The Nation.  An émigré novelist, Jose Manuel Prieto, offers “Travels by Taxi,” in which Prieto takes off on the apparent familiarity of  taxi drivers around the world with the image of Castro, whom they seem to all both know and admire. Prieto thinks that the United States fell for Castro’s intentional provocation—to make the US its eternal enemy—and thus by treating him and his revolution as an enemy, allowed him to make Cuba into a rather horrible place.

Ignore his reasoning for the Revolution’s trajectory; Prieto sees its very dark side, beginning with the vile executions carried out by Che Guevara, as he puts it, “joyously.” For Che, he writes, was a man who doesn’t care “whom he tramples along the way.” It’s alright for those who believe “in the inevitability of revolutionary violence and its cauterizing and salubrious effects,” but if you are like him, it is “an error into which a country must never fall.”The result is what he calls “an ever-presence of fear in Cuba,” a fear instilled by its rulers, and that deeply effects its citizens.

Prieto sees the fear as constant and irreversible. Referring to the ten thousands signatures of those brave Cubans who called for democratic elections, he points out that it was hardly a victory, since nothing will come of it. He does not like those Latin American intellectuals who still revere Fidel, and see him as “the greatest fabulist of his time,” a performance artist who is nothing less than that, and not a great leader. Thus they forgive him “for having taken an entire country prisoner, for the terrible impoverishment of its life,” all in the service of a conflict with the United States and which leads the leaders to keep Cuba in “an eternal stage of emergency.”

For those like Prieto, who hoped that a new generation would create a humane and democratic socialism, he found quickly that adherence to a would-be democratic form of socialism was not sufficient to let their voices be heard. Castro, he writes, “chose to betray us. Utterly,” and kicked them out of the game. Why? He give the answer: “True socialism can’t be reformed,” and would end quickly in its collapse and dismemberment. There could be no Cuban Gorbachev, he knows. “I’m sure of it.” Thus, he bemoans the truth that there will be “no Second Cuban Revolution to rectify and cleanse away the evils, violence and social harms of the first one.” Instead, he thinks there will be small steps that will lead to rejection of the anti-democratic character of the regime, perhaps lead by military leaders who might eventually form a political party. Such a party, he hopes, will cease “to be the State Leviathan that exists today, renouncing its monstrous privilege, which is a thousand times more abhorrent than the endemic corruption of pre-1959 Cuba.”

These words in The Nation and those in the monthly In These Times are at times contradictory, confused and sometimes ambivalent. Nonetheless, they are strong words for the left-wing readers who until recently, have stood by the Castro brothers and have defended their regime. They must come as somewhat of a shock to their readers, who might wonder how such bourgeois deviations have made their way into its pages. Now if we could only get these words to Sean Penn, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Harry Belafonte, Michael Moore and all the other remaining sycophants of Fidel and Raul Castro.  Is it too late for even these people to learn something?

Here are some of my first thoughts on the evident Democratic victory—obtaining the 60 necessary votes to pass the Reid health care bill. As I sit completely snowed in a storm of blizzard proportions, which will keep me homebound for at least three to four days, I watched both Harry Reid’s morning press conference and the response later by Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

First, Reid candidly explained how what he called the political process of legislating led to the special treatment on Medicaid given to the state of Nebraska. Because many poor states will find that that the expansion of this program in the new bill will mean that they cannot meet the necessary funding that comes from their own state budgets, they will be in danger of a major shortfall or bankruptcy, thereby having to increase state taxes to cover the difference.

Now, however, the bill singles out Nebraska for very special treatment. As today’s New York Times reports, “The amendment also includes a special extension solely for Nebraska: increased federal contributions to the cost of an expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal insurance program for the poor.” The effect of this is that unlike other states, Nebraskans will not have to worry about how to fund the increased cost of Medicaid expansion in their state—forever!

Moreover, as Reihan Salam points out, “Nebraska is a relatively low-poverty state, with a poverty rate of 10.6 percent of households. Fifteen other states have lower poverty rates while thirty-five have higher poverty rates. Yet it seems that Nebraska, by virtue of its impressively stubborn Democratic senator, will receive unusually generous treatment.”

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The Lieberman-Dean Imbroglio

December 16th, 2009 - 3:38 pm

As the Obama administration’s dream of a health care reform bill  faces zero hour, two new obstacles stand in its way. Let us call it the Lieberman-Dean imbroglio.  Lieberman vowed to vote against the Senate bill, unless it abandoned both the public option and the Medicare buy-in. Sure, he changed his position on the latter over the years, as his detractors have pointed out. But desperate for his support, Harry Reid caved—and Lieberman  is close to publicly announcing that the Democratic caucus now has his vote.

Yet, the vitriol heaped on Lieberman has been not only excessive, unprecedented and verging on the anti-Semitic, but has exceeded the levels of nastiness we have come to expect in our political culture. The first of the vicious political screeds came from the website of The New Republic, on which Jonathan Chait in effect called Lieberman the equivalent of a mass murderer. Am I exaggerating? Here are Chait’s words: “He seems to view the prospect of sticking it to the liberals who supported his Democratic opponent in 2006 as a goal potentially worth sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of Americans to fulfill.”  If that was not enough, Chait went on to write that “I suspect that Lieberman is the beneficiary, or possibly the victim, of a cultural stereotype that Jews are smart and good with numbers. Trust me, it’s not true.”

Lee Siegel, also a TNR graduate, goes way beyond Chait’s attack. Siegel writes that Lieberman uses his status as an Orthodox Jew to prove that he is a good man. As he puts it, in a bit of vile hyperbole, “And if you get a big fat check from the insurance lobby on the one hand, and the Israel lobby on the other, well, this the tribute that reality pays to virtue.” Lieberman, Siegel says, is the victim of “fundamentalist sickness.” No one, in his eyes, can have a position opposed to the current health care bill for any valid reason. Then, Siegel says Lieberman comes close to being the model of an anti-Semitic caricature. Why? Because  “Lieberman is greedy, arrogant, venal…vindictive” and , if you can believe this, “ritually unclean.”

Ironically, on “Morning Joe” today, it was left to the old anti-Semite himself  Pat Buchanan to defend  Lieberman, pointing out that if the Obama administration has any chance of gaining back independents, centrists and moderates who have been deserting Obama in droves, it is because Joe Lieberman’s forcing of a compromise against a disastrous bill that is not popular. So Lieberman’s toughness may be the one thing that keeps them in the Democratic column.

The other problem facing the administration is that accepting Lieberman’s demands means that the left-wing of the party is now threatening to pull the plug on their support of their health care bill.  Howard Dean has openly called for defeat of the bill, arguing that it should be sent back to Congress, and that it is worthless without both the public option and the Medicare buy-in. Calling it a “bigger bailout for the insurance industry than AIG,” Dean went on to say that the current bill is “an insurance company’s dream.” To get what he wants accomplished, Dean favors going back to the House and starting the reconciliation process- a technique that would give them victory with only 51 Senate votes rather than 60, and would force an unpopular bill on the public through an undemocratic and thoroughly partisan course of action.

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Part I

In 1997, Matt Damon played the part of a janitor who turned out to be not only a math wizard, but one of the most brilliant men you could find anywhere.  Trying to impress an arrogant Harvard student, who thought he knew everything, Damon’s character quotes from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.  He tells the Harvard kid and a psychiatrist at the hospital he works at that “you’re surrounding yourself with all the wrong fuckin’ books. You wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll fuckin’ knock you on your ass.”

A few years later, HBO’s “The Sopranos” had a Columbus Day episode. Tony’s kid informs him that they don’t celebrate it at school, because Columbus was a practitioner of genocide against the Indian natives in the new land. When Tony asks him where he got that from, he tells him it was from their school textbook , Zinn’s People’s History.

Zinn’s book has now gone through many editions, and became the single best selling text of history that has ever been published- selling over two million copies—some 128,000 each year since his first edition was published over twenty years ago! Schools around the nation actually use it as a textbook. As  Dan Flynn notes, the course statement for a history class at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA states that “This is an advanced class and all students should have read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States before the first day of class, to give us a common background to begin the class.”

So if you want to know why the current  generation  hews to a left-wing world view, look no further than the influence of Zinn. Lenin once famously quipped that “We will sell the capitalists the rope that we will use to hang them.” So true, except now the TV networks and its corporate owners are buying not the rope, but Zinn’s book for an even bigger mass market.

When Zinn’s book was just published, Matt Damon lived next door to him. He and his friend Ben Affleck spent long hours with Zinn.  For many years Damon and Affleck tried to fund a major TV mini-series based on Zinn’s book. Originally, it looked like Fox had signed a deal, but it was squashed by Rubert Murdoch. Now, they have managed to partially reach their goal, with this Sunday’s TV special on the History channel, called  “The People Speak: Democracy is Not A Spectator Sport.”

The hype for the show has been everywhere. On the TV talk shows you cannot have escaped its stars hyping it. If you read a popular news magazine or a daily paper, you’ve heard about it. Its adherents all make the same argument: for the first time, you get the real American story. The point is not to study and understand the past, but rather, as Damon told The New York Times,to show the past’s resonance for today, when the public is angry about banks and bailouts, and foreign wars. “That’s by design,” Damon said. “What they were up against oftentimes are exactly the same things we’re up against now.” Zinn added people rebelled in the past, and he hopes the series will spread rebellion now, and “lead into a larger movement for economic justice.” Zinn sees history as a tool to be utilized behalf of radical politics- not as a way to understand our country’s growth and development.

As The History Channel people present it, as do many of the actors and stars on the program, it is all so benign— simply a way to show the nation through dramatic readings, songs and Zinn’s narrative, some of the key documents that were at the center of our nation’s past. Viggo Mortensen says that it is history “from the standpoint of ordinary people often overlooked in our textbooks and our culture.” (This of course, is hardly the case. Indeed, for the past two decades, the new social historians have dominated the profession of history, and if anything has been overlooked in our universities and textbooks, it is plain old political history and narrative history.)  Mortensen points to the voice of an IWW member, who points out WW I “is a businessman’s war,” and hence the people shouldn’t be shot to “save the lovely state of affairs which we now enjoy.”  Just like today, when our troops are in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course, on behalf of the oil interests and Halliburton. Nothing has to be said about the actual causes and reasons for America’s entrance into the war—that would just confuse things.

The point is not to understand the past, according to the actors who participate, but to inspire people to make their voices heard today, not to tell it “from the standpoints of generals and kings and presidents,” which “encourages passivity, a sense of hopelessness.”  Change only comes to these people through dissent, struggle, strikes, boycotts and the like. Thus one of the major participants, actor Josh Brolin, says in the trailer for his video performance, that “there is a need to speak out” and the people who did in the past were not heard, and now we can hear “the gold in their words.” As for the present, Brolin adds, people have to “speak out” and that is “the only goal,” so people can be “empowered” to take action which is “fantastic.”  Does Brolin, I wonder, apply his view to the tea parties, where citizens who are empowered take action? No one seems to have asked him that question.

Damon also told USA Today that TV “is the perfect format for a history lesson. You’re getting the actual text verbatim, so there’s no spin, performed by these great actors.” If he went back to school today, he says, he’d be a history major. Spare us, please. But Brolin at least  is pleased that his daughter’s California high school uses Zinn’s book as a text, so at least she’ll know true history.

Of course, its defenders say in advance, “the lunatic right will howl to the heavens after seeing ‘liberal Hollywood’ perform the words of labor radicals, anti-racists, feminists and socialists.”  So all who might pay attention to critics, be forewarned by Dave Zirin at HuffPost, you are part of the “lunatic right.” I mean, who else would dare criticize this series? Indeed, to criticize this show is like Nazi “book-burning.”  Our country, Zirin writes, “is “dedicated to historical amnesia,” and those in power fear our radical past. “We need to rescue the great battles for social justice from becoming either co-opted or simply erased from the history books. Our children don’t learn about the people who made the Civil Rights Movement.” I wonder what school Zirin went to. It seems at times that is all they learn about, as everyone who has kids in school well know.

And of course, Zirin hints that Obama has already betrayed those who voted for him, by sending troops to Afghanistan, so that Obama “in practice has been like watching George W. Bush with a working cerebellum.” And he thinks the administration is “counting on the American people” to support him and pretend “we never saw this movie before.”  That is what   the TV series will, he hopes, prevent, so that it will “resurrect our past as a guide to fight for the future.” New generations will now not only hear the words of Socialist Party leader Gene Debs in the 20’s, but will themselves turn to the works of Zinn, who knows that history is not about “understanding the past,” but about “changing the future.” That alone, by the way, should disqualify anyone from ever calling Zinn a “historian.”

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Picking and Singing at Princeton

December 9th, 2009 - 10:14 am

On Monday, I participated in a wonderful event at Princeton University, a forum sponsored by The Madison Center, run by the distinguished scholar, lawyer and philosopher, Robert P. George.  Billed as “Pickers, Pop Fronters, and Them ‘Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues’: A Meditation on Music and Politics,” the meeting was really about the politics of folk music, in particular, the ties of the Old Left (Communist Party and fellow-travelers) to the culture of folk and old-time music.

Rather than report on it myself, I am republishing here the observations made yesterday in the blog by Sean Curnyn, who came from New York City to take part. Curnyn in the proprietor and founder of a wonderful website devoted to Bob Dylan, and related subjects. He is author of two wonderful articles in The Weekly Standard; this one on Dylan’s politics,  and this piece on Greil Marcus’s book about Dylan.  So in the future, check out his blog at www.rightwingbob.com. You will enjoy it!

I only wish to add one part of my own presentation here. I have blogged and written many places about Pete Seeger. When Seeger left The Weavers, he was replaced by Erik Darling, whom everyone assumed was a Seeger clone, musically and politically. But not only did Darling bring a lot musically to the group, his own view of the world was far removed from that of the left-wing milieu out of which the other Weavers- Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays- came.  Here is what I said about Darling:

When Seeger left The Weavers in the mid 50’s to go off on his own, he was replaced by a master singer and banjoist, the late Erik Darling.  The choice of the talented Darling turned out to be filled with irony. Most people do not realize that not only was Darling not a leftist, but was a man who was inspired by the writings of Ayn Rand. Yet, the Weavers were considered the heart of the cultural Left, and their audiences, especially in big cities, poured out to hear them and believed they were making a statement about the lasting impact of their movement and the righteousness of their thinly veiled  Communist politics.

Yet, as Darling wrote in his posthumously published memoir, when he joined the group he was “not a political person at the time.”  In fact, by the time he was performing and recording with the group, Darling had become a dedicated anti-Communist. He was repelled by what he called “the culture of Communism,” in which, he wrote,  the government would not only run everything, but would “make all the decisions…including what music to record and play on the air.”  And yet, here he was a member of a group, as he went on to say, that was “one of the most political groups that ever walked on the face of the earth.” He thought that what The Weavers others members believed would lead to “government bureaucrats running our lives,” which he thought was “totally ludicrous and against everything I’d come to believe.”

Strangely, Darling wrote that he never in all his years singing with Seeger and later with the Weavers he never had one single political discussion! He thought they were only concerned about ending segregation, and he simply assumed they had all left the orbit of the CP after the Khrushchev report of 1956. His problems began, he wrote- and they accounted for his leaving the group- because he came to feel that  they “stood for an underground Marxist agenda. People would acknowledge me from a distance at parties…knowing I was a Weaver, and wink, like the people in the French underground winked at each other in the movie Casabalanca.” But, he writes, “ I wasn’t aligned with any political group,” and found that I was in a “political no-man’s land.” Everyone, he wrote me by e-mail shortly before his passing, “assumed you shared their politics.”   So, Darling wrote, believing in art that was not politicized  and meant to have a message, reading Ayn Rand, as well as personal stress caused by the collapse of his marriage led him, he wrote,  to leave “the great group for political as well as musical reasons.”

Darling, who was a friend of mine and one of my banjo teachers, passed away last year. He died just as his memoir about his life in folk music was published. Most people do not even know it exists. But those who want to read his story, it is available here . Give it as a holiday gift to someone who likes folk music, and wants the real story.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Positively Princeton: Professors, Pickers and Provocateurs …7:40 pm

RWB was thrilled to be able to attend a lunch seminar held at Princeton University yesterday, titled “Pickers, Pop Fronters, and Them ‘Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues’: A Meditation on Music and Politics.” (Say that five times fast.) It was held under the auspices of the James Madison Program at that university, whose founding director is Robert P. George.

Professor George introduced the speakers — Lauren Weiner and Ronald Radosh (it was Ron who had kindly invited me) and George also brought his guitar and mandolin, the better to later perform some tunes with those same speakers and with guest Bob Cohen (the estimable Cantor Bob who has been mentioned several times before in this space including at this link). Cornel West, also of Princeton, was a guest attendee (and ended up contributing some deft backing vocals to the musical mélange).

I didn’t take any notes at all, but I’ll offer my flawed reporting on the seminar anyhow. The genesis for the get-together was Lauren Weiner’s fascinating and entertaining article (in the forthcoming issue of First Things) called “Where Have All the Lefties Gone?” (Lauren is a writer who has written on history and politics for the Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion and many other publications.) Her article traces some of the history of various folk revivals in the United States and the efforts to turn the songs and the whole genre towards the goal of promoting, well, Marxist revolution. Her talk was very much centered on the same themes as her piece. One of her most interesting observations was on the way in which the whole effort finally gained its greatest traction by becoming focused on anti-anti-communism (in the wake of events in the 1950s related to the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate investigations of Joseph McCarthy). To quote a little from her article:

Betty Sanders did a jaunty 1952 version of “Talking Un-American Blues” about the subpoena (eventually canceled) that she and her coauthor Irwin Silber received from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Alan Lomax and Michael Loring sang (to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”): “Re-pu-bli-cans they call us ‘Red,’ the Demmies call us ‘Commie.’ / No matter how they slice it, boys, it’s still the old salami.”

This was a new, coy art that was to grow in significance: ridiculing one’s adversaries for correctly discerning one’s politics. [...] The 1962 song “The Birch Society” by Malvina Reynolds has the typical Pop Front blend of brazenness and coyness — with an extra dollop of sanctimony, a Reynolds specialty. “They’re afraid of nearly everything that’s for the general good,” she sang, “they holler ‘Red’ if something’s said for peace and brotherhood.” The fact that they also hollered Red if somebody actually was a Red got lost in the shuffle. For here, at last, was a rallying point — anti-anti-communism — with a potential for wide appeal. It became fundamental to the politics of nearly everyone who was left-of-center and was adopted by legions of middle-class young people unmoved by concepts of such as worker ownership of the means of production.

Dylan’s song Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues had to get a mention in this context and did. One observation I would make myself about Dylan is this: Even while he was flirting with these themes and entertaining his left-wing friends and audiences, he also in some way seemed to be looking right through the transparency of it all. It might be summed up by a verse of I Shall Be Free No 10:

Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree
I want ev’rybody to be free
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.

Those so inclined would hear that as a slam on the Republican Goldwater. Yet, the humor is double-edged and, to me, the sharper edge is the one that has the intolerant “liberal” as the real clown. (And obviously that’s underlined all the more by Bob’s statement in his memoir Chronicles that his “favorite politician” during his early time in the Village was none other than Barry Goldwater.)

Anyhow, Lauren’s talk also proceeded to reflect on some of the ironies in how that which was once serious left-wing movement music became assimilated into the capitalist musical culture, and transformed, and largely defanged.

Ronald Radosh then spoke. (Ron is the author of many books including his really essential memoir Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left and most recently A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel , coauthored with Allis Radosh.) Unfortunately, I don’t have an article to which to refer and with which to cheat when it comes to Ron’s talk, so I won’t attempt to summarize its main points, but it was a wide-ranging trip through related territory and beyond. He talked in particular of the role of Pete Seeger in the movement (under whose tutelage he himself learned to play banjo). He recalled watching a recent tribute to Seeger, on his 90th birthday, where Bruce Springsteen specifically gave him credit for having been “singing songs of peace since the 1930s.” As Ron observed, what was ironically left out and is doubtless unknown to many who watched the tributes is that those “songs of peace” in the 1930s were in defense of Joseph Stalin’s then-ally, Adolf Hitler. Ron was also interviewed for a tribute to Seeger, apparently at Pete’s own suggestion, so that a mention of Seeger’s errors (e.g. his persistent refusal to criticize Stalin until very recently) might temper all of the adulation. However, Ron’s remarks about such matters ended up on the cutting room floor, leaving only his pleasant recollections about learning how to play the banjo from Pete.

Ron also shared some memories of the late musician Erik Darling, who replaced Pete Seeger in the group The Weavers, and then had a fish-out-of-water perspective on the whole milieu, being himself actually more of a fan of Ayn Rand than Karl Marx.

There was some discussion after Ron’s talk but the people who had brought instruments were obviously eager to start using them, and things progressed quickly to a melodic exploration of the same landscape. One of the themes was the way in which old tunes are turned to again and again (or co-opted, if you prefer) with new lyrics applied; in particular the way old gospel and spiritual numbers were recruited for new causes. So we heard how “Jesus walked that lonesome valley, He had to walk it by Himself” became “You gotta go down and join the union, You got to join it by yourself”.

On a different but related angle, Bob Cohen illustrated how the great Hollywood composer Dimitri Tiomkin leaned heavily upon a Yiddish tune called Dem Milner’s Trern in writing his song Do Not Forsake Me for the film High Noon. Bob also pointed out that the same melody can be heard prominently in the film A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers. Later, Cohen also sang a little of When The World’s On Fire, a hymn recorded by the Carter Family, which provided the tune for Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land.

Lauren Weiner sang one of her favorite songs of the coming revolution, The Banks Are Made of Marble, with the support of the ensemble. Ron Radosh led the band in Which Side Are You On, also giving us some lines from the late Dave Van Ronk’s humorous rewrite of the tune, where he was looking back on some of the ironies and conflicts of the leftie/folk revival and asking “Which side are we on?” Robby George also gently performed a beautiful folk gospel song (the name of which, to my great consternation, is escaping me today) with Cornel West’s poignant supporting voice. A rousing version of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive ensued, and the proceedings ended with a boisterous This Land Is Your Land.

So, I couldn’t tell you exactly what may have been established by the seminar, but one thing in any case seems clear to me: music is bigger than politics, certainly more enduring, and makes a much deeper connection to the human spirit. It seems that even when songs are turned to the most utilitarian ends and strapped to some flawed cause du jour that — if they are genuinely great tunes — they will ultimately be reclaimed by music herself.


And I couldn’t really move on without mentioning this: When I had the pleasure of being introduced to Professor West, he told me that he had gotten the subtitle of his memoir from Bob Dylan. He was on his busy way and I didn’t ask for specifics, but I later checked, and his recently published book is titled Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud . Well, that’s not a Bob Dylan line with which I was familiar. I wondered if it might be from Tarantula or something. But no; some Googling eventually supplied the answer:

The title of the memoir comes from a chance encounter with Bob Dylan’s drummer in an airport, who remarked to Mr. West that Mr. Dylan had said that “Cornel West is someone who lives his life out loud.” It was natural to add love into the title to produce Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.

So there you go.

President Barack Obama’s past continues to haunt him. A friend  e-mailed me this revealing post by Bishop E.W. Jackson Sr., pastor of The Exodus Faith Ministries in Chesapeake, Virginia.  Bishop Jackson wrote it last June, but I have not seen it circulated or mentioned before now. Now, someone found it and put it on their own blog.

Like so many of us, Bishop Jackson describes himself as once a leftist Democrat; an African-American who grew up in a black urban community in Pennsylvania, and a man who is disturbed about what he calls “a strain of anti-Semitism in the black community.”

Bishop Jackson is also a Harvard Law School graduate, and evidently, was aware of Barack Obama during the year of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s “Million Man March.” He asks the following question:  “The question is whether Obama, given his Muslim roots and experience in Farrakhan’s Chicago, shares this antipathy for Israel and Jewish people. Is there any evidence that he does?”  This is the Bishop’s considered answer:

First, the President was taught for twenty years by a virulent anti-Semite, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In the black community it is called “sitting under”. You don’t merely attend a church, you “sit under” a Pastor to be taught and mentored by him. Obama “sat under” Wright for a very long time. He was comfortable enough with Farrakhan and Wright’s friend to attend and help organize his “Million Man March”. I was on C-Span the morning of the march arguing that we must never legitimize a racist and anti-Semite, no matter what “good” he claims to be doing. Yet a future President was in the crowd giving Farrakhan his enthusiastic support.

The Pastor continues to argue that he thinks today President Obama holds the “classic left-wing view” that “Israel is the oppressive occupier, and the Palestinians are Israel’s victims.”  He continues:

In speaking to the “Muslim World,” he did not address the widespread Islamic hatred of Jews. Instead he attacked Israel over the growth of West Bank settlements. Surely he knows that settlements are not the crux of the problem. The absolute refusal of the Palestinians to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is the insurmountable obstacle. That’s where the pressure needs to be placed, but this President sees it differently. He also made the preposterous comparison of the Holocaust to Palestinian “dislocation”.

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