Thursday, January 24, 2008

Gaza, The Clintons, Bush Lies

So many outrageous events, so little time to comment on them all.

Begin with the most outrageous, the move by Israel to cut off power to the 1.5 million Palestinians of Gaza, virtually all of them refugees living in squalid camps in the most densely populated piece of real estate in the world. This has meant suffering on an almost unimaginable scale, suffering of a kind that prompted the United Nations Security Council to attempt to pass a resolution condemning Israel for its “collective punishment.” And once again, predictably, the United States has blocked this action in order to protect its client state, Israel, from universal condemnation. This has in turn led the Gaza government, Hamas, or some of its more militant factions, to blow up the wall erected to keep the people of Gaza in a virtual prison, allowing thousands to rush into Egypt to buy desperately needed supplies.

No doubt the prison will soon be closed again, however. And the people of Gaza will be caged like dogs once again, dependent on their Israelis occupiers for scraps of food and fuel which can be squeezed or opened at will, just to see if the torture can get them to finally, and forever repudiate the duly-elected Hamas leaders who have had the temerity to stand up against their oppressors.

And when the imprisonment is complete once again, who among the candidates vying to be the next President will protest this slow strangulation of an entire people? One thing we can be sure of: it won’t be Hillary Clinton. And it is not only that the Senator from New York is so beholden to the powerful pro-Israel forces in her “home” state. No, there is a disquieting pattern beginning to emerge in the Clintonesque behavior of this election season. And that pattern is this: the Clintons—both of them it seems are cut from the same cloth—are willing to do or say just about anything to get elected. If it means sacrificing the Gazans to the local political winds, so be it. If it means playing up the attacks on Barack Obama to force him to “act black”, so be it. What this brings to mind is not just the sense of a Macbethian pair determined to seek and hold power, but the feeling that this couple shares one other trait: both are tone-deaf when it comes to limits, to noblesse, to a sense of rightness or proportion. It is as if despite the Yale Law School polish, both still act as if they are wearing manure-covered shoes. Or perhaps that is being unfair to farmers. It’s more as if neither has ever learned how to hold a fork, or smile naturally, or make a graceful exit. Indeed, the entire notion of grace seems absent from their repertoire. In the arena in which they choose to fight, anything goes: from taking advantage of insider financial knowledge to shtupping the White House intern in the coat room to playing the race card with a fellow Democratic aspirant to the presidency.

I have begun to think this is at the root of the “high negatives” that Hillary has always garnered. People do not like her, we are told, always with the notion that somehow she’s too “mannish,” i.e. aggressive. But it’s not only that. It’s that we sense something both callow and callous about her. One gets the sense that she would stoop to any depth to get the nomination—vote for the Iraq war, kiss the next baby, weep in public, stifle her natural laughter, minimize the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr—all without any sense of having misstepped.

This is not simply a question of breeding, either. George W. Bush has the same aura. Despite the distinguished dynasty from which he derives, the President is a farting, lying, bullying, Uriah Heep of a man, brooking no apparent restraint on his vengeful instincts and lust for power. This was brought out more forcefully than ever with a recent report, “Key False Statements,” from the Center for Public Integrity. That report noted in chapter and verse the astonishing number of outright lies and distortions the Bush Administration advanced in preparing the American public for war with Iraq. No less than 935 false statements about Iraq’s WMDs and its ties to Al Quaeda were listed in the report, starting as early as August 26, 2002 when Vice President Cheney asserted “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” And George W. Bush led the pack as the Liar-in-Chief with no less than 232 false public statements between 2001 and 2003, and an additional 28 false statements about Iraq’s supposed links to Al-Quaeda. And yet, all along there have been pundits like David Brooks of the NY Times extolling our 43rd President for his candor, his straight talk. He might not be a great intellect, these pooh-bahs of public opinion maintained, but he talks from his gut; he tells it to you straight. Straight indeed. The most accomplished liar ever to sit in the White House, a draft-dodger, torturer, election thief, compiler of the greatest deficits in the nation’s history, enabler of genocide, destroyer of republics, our own King George.

What can one conclude? I don’t know. Perhaps only this: Don’t follow leaders. And watch those parking meters.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Necessity of Obama

The squabble that broke out between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton last week over Obama’s appeal to the memory of Martin Luther King, and Hillary’s veiled belittling of King by invoking the greater importance of President Lyndon Johnson, reminded me of the key fact of American life: racism and the many disguises it takes, its long and agonizing history, its continuing ability to corrupt our lives. Though the Clintons have twisted and contorted themselves in defending their camp’s attacks, the basic truth remains: Obama needed to be attacked because of his Iowa victory, and the simplest and most effective way to attack someone in America is to bring up the specter of racial difference.

What this means is that, for all the gains recorded by the civil rights movement and the legal and social constraints imposed on racial discrimination in the United States, racism is alive and well and still capable of sinking anyone or any initiative that threatens the safe distance from “other races” maintained by the majority of Americans. I am not talking only about the South here. Even in a city as diligently integrated as Berkeley California, every resident knows exactly where the racial line stands. East Berkeley, in the hills, is the domain of wealthy whites. West Berkeley, in the flatlands, is the domain of blacks. Everyone knows what the “good” neighborhoods are, where they end, where the “questionable” areas begin. And though whites may live in such questionable areas for reasons of economics or philosophy, most automatically steer clear. It is thus in every city in the United States. Being an American means, literally, knowing where the “good” sections of any city or suburb lie. Though the lines may shift, every American always knows precisely where the current ones are drawn. And if one is not sure, one can always find out from friends, relatives, or real estate agents.

This is what is meant by “white privilege.” White people in America take it for granted that they have the right to live in a “good” neighborhood; indeed, have the obligation not to live in a “bad” neighborhood.

Politics in the last forty or so years has been predicated on this knowledge, on the underlying fears that the system of separation might be breached, and on the appeals to those fears. The entire Republican Party strategy—especially its “southern strategy” whereby it took from the Democratic Party its traditional dominance in the South—has been predicated on coded appeals to racial prejudice and fear. States’ rights, school voucher programs, diatribes against “welfare queens,” jeremiads about urban crime, implementation of “three-strike laws,” all are symbolic appeals to the racist roots of this nation which hold that blackness signals genetic defect, that urban blackness equals crime, that the mixing of races leads to moral decay. All the talk about “strict construction” of the Constitution notwithstanding, the real bedrock behind the conservative movement is its conviction and sly innuendo that “liberal” equals miscegenation.

It is for this reason that Barack Obama, even with his flaws, is necessary as the Democratic nominee for President. It is time for this nation, and particularly its Republican establishment, to be called on its coded racism. It is time for the nation to see just how and why racism persists, and whether the United States of America now has the moral courage to stand up for the equality it proclaims as its central creed. The candidacy of Barack Obama—regardless of his attempt to avoid any appeals to racial argument or sympathy—can and will bring these conflicts and contradictions into the open. It will soon—as soon as the Republicans have a nominee, that is—become apparent how deep and abiding is the fear of a black man in the White house. How deep and abiding is the racial sentiment underlying even “liberal” thought. Indeed, we have already seen this in the Clinton campaign. Imagine what “swift-boating” lies ahead when Republicans get their war machine untracked.

But far from being discouraged by this, by the potential of losing the White House because of its nomination of a black candidate, the Democratic Party should exult in it. If the Democratic Party means anything at all, if America means anything at all, it should, it must take this rare opportunity to directly challenge its own reigning orthodoxy. For at this moment in our history, when the moral face of America has been so bloodied by the Bush Administration’s depradations in the Middle East, by its destruction of constitutional guarantees at home, nothing else will do. Absent some sign of moral courage, America will become what it already has for much of the world: just another empire driven to extremes of cruelty and plunder, corruption and hypocrisy in its waning days.

Lawrence DiStasi