Monday, July 29, 2013

Yet Another "Peace" Process

Announced weeks ago by Secretary of State John Kerry after months of shuttle diplomacy, negotiators from Israel and the Palestinian Authority arrived in Washington DC on July 29 to begin preliminary talks to set a framework for the actual resumption of negotiations to be held later this year. Previous negotiators were said to have made “progress” in earlier rounds of talks shepherded by Kerry. The promise, as usual, was for a Palestinian state.
The key to getting talks started was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s order to release 104 Palestinian prisoners (Israel, as occupying authority, arrests whatever Palestinians it wishes to, with no need for trials or evidence) from Israeli jails as a sign of good faith—apparently over the fierce objections of some in his cabinet. The prisoner release was based on using lists of prisoners arrested before the Oslo Agreements of 1993, to be released in gradual steps. Netanyahu would seem to retain leverage here, because if the talks do not go his way, he can use the further release of prisoners as a negotiating carrot.
London’s Daily Telegraph noted that the outlines of a “deal” from previous rounds were: a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in 1967 (though Netanyahu has definitely not agreed to this). Border “adjustments” would be part of such a deal, adjustments that would allow Israel to annex land now occupied by its nearly 600,000 settlers—a deal that would seem to permit Israel to keep the lands it has seized illegally via its settlements.  Whether Mahmoud Abbas can convince Palestinians to accept such a “deal” remains to be seen.
Though Israel would no doubt deny it, the recent boycott announced by the European Union appears to have prodded Netanhyahu to agree to the talks after years of delay. The boycott, announced in mid July, is aimed at the Israeli settlements. It prohibits the EU and any EU state from awarding contracts, grants, or prizes to any Israeli institution or corporation that has any direct or indirect connection with Israeli settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or the Golan Heights. In a recent post, Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery had this to say about the EU boycott:

The EU boycott of the settlements and their supporters will have a major economic impact. No one knows yet how much. But the moral effect is even more significant.
Even if massive Israeli-American pressure thwarts or at least postpones the European action, the moral blow is already devastating. It tells us: The settlements are illegal. They are immoral. They inflict a huge injustice on the Palestinian people. They prevent peace. They endanger the very future of Israel.

Perhaps the most disappointing indication of where this new “peace process” is headed lies in the appointment of Martin Indyk, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, as the lead U.S. envoy to oversee negotiations. Indyk, an Australian of Jewish descent, spent time as a volunteer on a kibbutz during the 1973 war between Israel and Egypt before emigrating to the U.S. He began his American career working with AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group in the country. Besides his work in the Clinton and subsequent administrations, he has written widely on the threats to “stability” in the Middle East posed by Iraq (before the Bushes leveled it) and Iran. Given such a background, Indyk promises to continue the long tradition of American negotiators essentially serving as “Israel’s lawyers” (see below). This being the case, I thought a re-presentation of a blog I wrote earlier this year (May 13) would be useful. It summarizes Prof. Rashid Khalidi’s analysis of the so-called “peace process” in recent years. Though one can hope that this time will be different, the preliminary signs, along with the depressing history, would seem to point, rather, at yet another mask of progress towards Palestinian statehood that disguises an endless process leading nowhere.

                                                Fake Peace, Fake Process

With the Israeli military again in the headlines, having once more attacked a country, Syria, without a shred of provocation, it is perhaps useful to go over the so-called ‘peace process’ that Israel and the United States keep bringing up to cover their crimes. We are told again and again that Israel is willing to talk peace, but “can’t find a real partner for talks”—i.e. one that will grant Israel’s “right to exist.” We are told repeatedly that the Obama administration wants to be an “honest broker for peace” between Israelis and Palestinians, but can’t find partners willing to make necessary compromises. And so, where Presidents Carter and Clinton and others were able to make apparent progress, neither Obama nor Bush nor Reagan have been able to advance the process, though all have made reassuring sounds about their intention to broker a peace that will result in a Palestinian state. 
            Rashid Khalidi’s latest book, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, puts all this in perspective. For what Khalidi—a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia—shows us is that far from being impartial brokers working to reach a just peace, successive administrations in Washington could more accurately be described as ‘Israel’s Lawyers.’  They have been so openly partisan, so eager to please their Israeli clients, so craven in their obedience to whatever Israeli leaders have dictated to them as terms, that they have undermined rather than advanced the cause of peace. Moreover, while many Americans who have thought about the problem posit that it is the Israel lobby and groups like AIPAC that drive America’s middle East policy, Khalidi points out that American strategic interests in the middle East, particularly with respect to Arab oil-producing despotisms, are the policy drivers because the U.S. pays little or no price for its bias in favor of Israel. Though the Arab public rages about this American favoritism, the monarchies that rule places like Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Bahrain, keep their people so suppressed that Washington can safely ignore the people themselves. As we saw when Hamas won, openly and democratically, the right to represent the Palestinians, the thing Washington fears most is Arab democracy. Despots who keep their people controlled suit America just fine.
            To make his point, Khalidi focuses on three “peace episodes” of recent years: the Camp David Accords of 1978 and their aftermath; the Madrid-Washington negotiations of 1991-93 leading to the Oslo Accords; and Obama’s efforts since his election. All three have, of course, failed to bring peace or result in a Palestinian state. Indeed, Khalidi points out in meticulous detail that the chief aim of Israeli leaders has always been to prevent the formation of a Palestinian state. Even acknowledging that there is a Palestinian people has been written out of agreements like those President Carter was forced to sign at Camp David. In a January 22, 1978 side letter to Menachem Begin five days after the Accords were signed, Carter agreed that,
            wherever the expressions “Palestinians” or “Palestinian people” occurred in the text, they “are being and will be construed and understood by you as ‘Palestinian Arabs.’” This was a term of art among those Israelis who denied that the Palestinians were a people. (6)

Khalidi explains that this denial of Palestinians as a people goes all the way back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 (the foundational document allowing for Jews to have a homeland in Palestine) “which never mentioned the Palestinians by name.” The same kind of linguistic sleight of hand was already incorporated into the Camp David Accords which establish a “Self Governing Authority” for the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza, giving them “full autonomy” over themselves, but not over the land. The land, that is, was to “remain under full Israeli control.” This was consistent with the Israeli, and especially the right-wing Likud Party’s concept of Eretz Israel, which said that “The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is eternal.”
            Understanding this basic principle—at first hidden in the secret Carter letter—is crucial to understanding all the so-called peace efforts that follow. For if there is no Palestinian people (Prime Minister Golda Meir specifically stated, in 1969, that “There was no such thing as Palestinians….It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” 9), then talk of a Palestinian state is arrant nonsense, a smokescreen. This is why the representative of the Palestinian people, the PLO, with Yasser Arafat as its leader, was completely excluded from the Camp David talks. A people that is not a people cannot even be thought of as having a government, and besides, the PLO were terrorists (until, that is, it became convenient for the U.S. and Israel to consider the Palestinian authority the sole representative of the Palestinians, instead of Hamas, which has now become the “terrorists.”) Then, to make things even clearer, Khalidi cites a 1982 CIA memo (Reagan was now president) that went as follows:
            “Begin asserts that the C[amp] D[avid] A[ccords] rule out the emergence of a Palestinian state. In Begin’s view, the agreements ‘guarantee that under no condition’ can a Palestinian state be created. In practice Begin effectively rules out any exercise of Palestinian self-determination except one that continues Israel’s preeminent position in the West Bank.” (19)

Khalidi comments that this was not only the position of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, but “the enduring position of every Israeli government since.” So, while there has been an almost endless procession of American “negotiators” seeking to find a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine resulting in a secure state for each, this has all been a ruse, a way to drag out so-called peace talks endlessly, endlessly giving Palestinians and the world the illusion that a Palestinian state was right around the corner (as soon as knotty little problems like “facts on the ground” could be ironed out). In reality,
            the Palestinians would be restricted to talking about and eventually living under the extremely low ceiling of Begin’s scheme for “autonomy” for the people, but not the land, all the while continuing to suffer under a regime of continued occupation. (37)

That 45-year occupation, by the way, illegal under international law, and allowing the Israelis to arrest and imprison and assassinate Palestinians with impunity, establish “facts on the ground” such as hundreds of illegal settlements that split the alleged territory of future Palestine into impossible “bantustans,” and undermine the now-acceptable PLO government by leaving no doubt who is in charge, continues, illegally, to this day.
            Skipping the Oslo Accords of 1993, which, according to Khalidi, only made things worse for Palestinians, we come to Barack Obama. Initially thought to offer the Palestinians their best hope for peace and a state for themselves, Obama has instead become more and more subservient to the demands of Israeli prime ministers and their American proxies. Most importantly, he has accepted the “central element of Israeli’s self-presentation: that the state of Israel and the Israeli people, indeed the entire Jewish people, are in a state of perpetual existential danger”(74). In this regard, yet a new rhetorical term has been added to emphasize this “existential threat”: “lawfare.” The term means what it sounds like: Israel’s enemies using the law, mainly international law, to conduct war against Israel by calling attention to Israeli violations of International Law! To rabid supporters of Israel, this is an illegitimate tactic, comparable to the related tactic of “delegitimization” of Israel (which points out that the blockade of the Gaza Strip, or the use of phosphorus shells against civilians, or detention without trial, or Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, are in fact illegal according to International Law.) There are several pro-Israeli websites that monitor such “illegitimate” legal tactics against ‘existentially-threatened’ Israel. No matter. Israel has never had anything to worry about from Obama, or his emissaries like ex-senator George Mitchell (whom Israeli supporters called “biased” due to his Lebanese descent). Mitchell’s mission was quickly sabotaged by Dennis Ross, Obama’s special assistant for the Middle East. Ross undermined Mitchell at every opportunity, finally triumphing over him by offering Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu outrageous guarantees (F-35 jets, a US veto of a planned UN Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood if it came up, and long term security guarantees in case of an overall peace settlement) in return for a 3-month settlement freeze. But even the U.S.’s added promise never to ask for such a freeze on illegal settlements again didn’t work: Netanyahu haughtily refused.
            The Mitchell effort essentially ended U.S. peace attempts. All that is left is an Israel that dictates U.S. policy whenever it wishes to, and receives in return absurd validations of its every crime and violation of international law—including its recent unprovoked bombing of Syria. The response has become almost pro-forma: ‘Israel has a right to defend itself.’ Against what? Against whom? Against any perceived threat that it defines as a threat, regardless of the evidence?
            As of now, in other words, there is no Palestinian peace process, just as there has never been a “Palestinian people” as far as Israel is concerned. And with the excision and destruction of the names (the 1992 proposal stated that the peace talks deal only with the people, not the territories, referring to both as “the Arab inhabitants of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza District), comes the excision and destruction of the people themselves. That is essentially what the United States has brokered with its so-called “peace process:” the slow destruction of a people and their culture, the slow expropriation of their land and property and any hope they might ever have entertained for justice. And all of it has taken place in broad daylight, in full view of the entire international community that makes comforting noises about peace and justice and the right of self-determination.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, July 22, 2013

Theft of a Presidency: The Henry Wallace Story

The Democratic Convention of July 1944 must rank as one of the most dramatic in history. The drama did not concern the presidency, since Franklin Roosevelt, with WWII still raging, was sure to be nominated for his fourth term. The question concerned his Vice President, Henry A. Wallace. Wallace had been the center of FDR’s New Deal, the greatest Secretary of Agriculture in history—responsible for initiating food stamps, support for small farmers (he himself farmed in his native Iowa) going bankrupt due to overproduction and plummeting crop prices, the policy of storing grain against lean years, and a host of other far-reaching programs. He was generally considered to be the brightest cabinet officer in a cabinet of giants, a renaissance man whose activities ran the gamut from dirt farming himself to inventing hybrid corn to teaching himself genetics to philosophy and mysticism. In 1940, over the objection of many conservatives, FDR chose him to be his vice president. After a controversial three years serving as possibly the most powerful vice president ever up to that time, and with the worldwide conflict still not decided, the time came to set the stage for the 1944 campaign. The problem was that most pols knew that FDR would probably not last through his fourth term: weakened by 11 years of furious activity due to Depression and War, the President had recently been found to have hypertension and arteriosclerosis, his once-legendary energy reduced to a shadow of its former level. Whoever became Vice President was virtually certain to be President, and the conservatives in the party were terrified that it would be Henry Wallace—the man many considered to be not only a dreamer and a hopelessly naïve idealist, but a virtual Communist (he was, in fact, a quintessentially American democrat and capitalist, though keenly aware of the need for the world to realize its unity and interdependence in the post-World War II era, and its need for the self-determination of all its peoples). For that reason, an actual conspiracy gathered to deny Wallace the nomination and give it to one of the other contenders: presidential assistant Jimmy Byrnes; Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas; Senator Alben Barkley; or, most importantly, an obscure product of the infamous Boss Pendergast machine of St. Louis, Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman. The conspiracy was initiated by Edwin Pauley, the wealthy conservative oilman from California who would later play a role in bringing Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Pauley loathed Wallace and his ideas of “economic democracy,” and was determined to block him from ever ascending to the presidency. He recruited allies like “Pa” Watson, FDR’s appointments secretary who controlled access to the President, along with other bosses from the Democratic Party, and they hatched their plans—first to get to the ailing FDR to see if he would deny Wallace the job, and if not, to try for some sort of commitment from the president to accept one of the replacements, hopefully Truman. They did manage to get a semi-approval from FDR for either Douglas or Truman, if Wallace weren’t nominated, but as usual, FDR was loathe to commit himself. He would leave it up to the convention, he said, and then took off for a secret meeting with General MacArthur and the military in Honolulu.
FDR’s half approval gave the conspirators the opening they needed. They put out a steady drumbeat of anti-Wallace propaganda, most suggesting that the Vice President was a socialist if not an outright Communist (making it perhaps the first campaign targeting a government official for being “soft on Communism.”) They were helped in this by Wallace’s ill-advised trip to Asia just prior to the convention, in which he extolled the accomplishments of the Soviet Union in Siberia, and criticized Chiang-Kai-shek for ignoring the threat building within his country by Mao’s communists. They were also helped by Wallace's genuine interest in what he thought of as the Soviet experiment in bringing about a more equal society, a society that would emphasize economic as well as political democracy. He also knew of the indispensable role the Soviet Union had played in stopping Hitler (the Soviets lost 6,000,000 men in halting Hitler’s eastern thrust, literally saving the Allies and Britain from certain destruction, at enormous cost to their homeland), and the double-crossing British role in delaying the “second front” invasion of France. Churchill and the British, Wallace knew, were working hard to put off the Allied invasion as long as possible so the Soviets and Nazis would continue “killing each other.” Wallace also knew the British were more concerned about maintaining the last elements of their empire than in aiding their Soviet ally, and certainly more interested in reviving their empire after the war than in bringing about the postwar age of cooperation among all nations and peoples that Wallace had spoken about often. In fact, the British sent Roald Dahl (later of Willy Wonka fame) to the U.S. to spy on Wallace and keep them apprised of his “loony” ideas for post-war peace—especially about providing self-determination to the former British colonies such as India. So Wallace had not only a homegrown conspiracy working against his re-election to the vice presidency, he also had an international one featuring Winston Churchill.
Thus were set in motion the machinations at the convention. The conspirators—especially Robert Hannegan, a Truman protégé who was named chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1944; Chicago Mayor and political boss, Edward Kelly; national Democratic secretary George Allen; and two previous national chairmen, Ed Flynn, boss of the Bronx, and Postmaster General Frank Walker—planned every detail to deny Wallace the nomination on the first ballot, and then arrange a favorite-sons floor fight to dilute Wallace’s strength and maneuver a compromise nomination of Truman. Their plan was byzantine, thorough and brilliantly crafty. What they did not count on, however, was Wallace’s genuine popularity with both Democrats and the American public. On the eve of the convention, a Gallup poll revealed that Wallace was running at 65% favorable, with the other putative VP candidates running in single digits and Truman barely registering 2%. Though alarming, such news could be dealt with. What shocked the conspirators was the response to Wallace’s convention speech. Not noted for his oratory or his charisma, the shy, self-effacing Wallace, who had not even wanted to attend the convention, eventually relented and entered the fight in earnest. Most notably, he prepared a barn-burner of a speech. It was distinctly not political; in fact it was called “tactless,” for it did everything a politician usually tries to avoid: give direct voice to his deepest philosophy and the policies he believed in, and throw it in the faces of his enemies. Here’s some of what he said:
“The strength of the Democratic Party has always been the people—plain people like so many of those here in this convention—ordinary folks, farmers, workers, and business men along Main Street….The future belongs to those who go down the line unswervingly for the liberal principles of both political democracy and economic democracy regardless of race, color or religion. In a political, educational and economic sense there must be no inferior races. The poll tax must go. Equal educational opportunities must come. The future must bring equal wages for equal work regardless of sex or race.
Roosevelt stands for all this. That is why certain people hate him so…” (p. 360, American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace, by John Culver and John Hyde. Emphasis added.)

The 40,000 convention goers in Chicago Stadium went crazy, cheering and demonstrating for the man they clearly favored as vice president. Commentators like Thomas Stokes called the speech magnificent, causing him to leap from his feet in tears, but to write “goddam it, it isn’t smart politics.” Time magazine called it “the first speech that riveted the delegates’ attention..blunt, grave, tactless.” And former senator George Norris, too ill to attend but listening in Nebraska, wrote this to Wallace:

“If you had been trying to appease somebody you made a mistake, but you were talking straight into the faces of your enemies who were trying to defeat you, and no matter what they may think or what effect it may have on them, the effect on the country and all those who will read that speech is that it was one of the most courageous exhibitions ever seen at a political convention in this country.” (p. 361, American Dreamer)

In fact, the effect on Wallace’s enemies was panic. They tried to get word to reporters that FDR had privately endorsed not Wallace, but either Truman or Douglas, but few were convinced. Most were anticipating the evening session when the President himself was to deliver a speech radio-broadcast from his wartime location, a Pacific naval base. The speech was vintage Roosevelt, denying that he had any eagerness for the job, but insisting that he was doing so out of his sense of duty, to complete the job he had started: winning the war, winning the peace afterwards, and then building a peacetime economy to employ returning veterans and all Americans. Predictably, the convention crowd cheered loud and long for their heroic president. But then came the unpredictable—at least to the conspirators. The crowd segued from cheering for Roosevelt to cheering and calling for the vice president: “We want Wallace! We want Wallace!” Sam Jackson, in on the conspiracy, tried to gavel the crowd back to order, but to no avail. The chant went on, growing louder by the second. It grew even more raucous when the organist, though a loyalist to Chicago Boss Kelly, got caught up himself, and began playing the “Iowa Corn Song.” The convention turned to pandemonium, and was fast slipping into acclamation for Wallace and well out of conspiratorial control.
There was only one card for the conspirators to play, and they played it: close the convention down. There were fire laws, said Mayor Kelly and he began to throw open doors and direct workers to cut off the organ and cut power cables if necessary. Meantime, Senator Claude Pepper, a staunch New Deal liberal and leader of the Florida delegation, began trying to put Wallace’s name in nomination, knowing the vote would have been overwhelmingly in the vice president’s favor on the first ballot. Pepper began jumping up and down trying to get recognized by the podium, but Chairman Jackson refused to acknowledge him. Nor could the Florida senator address the chair by microphone because the power had been cut. Desperate, Pepper began shoving and elbowing his way to the podium, got to the steps and was five feet from the podium pushing his way up. Chairman Hannegan saw the situation and screamed to Chairman Jackson to call for adjournment, but Jackson was fearful or a riot, saying “This crowd is too hot. I can’t.” Hannegan then shouted louder for adjournment, insisting that “I’m taking orders from the president!” Which, of course, he was not.
By now Claude Pepper was one step away from changing the course of history, but Jackson finally called for yeas and nays to adjourn, and though the crowd screamed “No, no, no, no!” Jackson doggedly insisted that the ayes had it, and gaveled the session to a close. The organ was stopped, the lights were cut, and police began to clear the aisles. Culver and Hyde conclude with this comparison to another valiant but failed American charge:
“It was over. Pepper had led the Pickett’s Charge of the Wallace movement.”
Sadly, that was the case. By next morning, the bosses had reasserted control, kept anyone they thought might be a Wallace supporter out of the convention hall, promised bribes to most of the leaders of state delegations, and went through the motions of pretending to have a first ballot—which Wallace came within 100 votes or so of winning. Then they proceeded to orchestrate subsequent ballots, calling in their favors, and managed a landslide on the third ballot for the until-then obscure senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman.
Though for politicians the result meant only that a new, more conservative bosses’ pick had become vice president, within less than a year and throughout the rest of the twentieth century, the 1944 convention theft had monumental effects. On April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and the New Deal he had crafted so carefully and in the face of so much opposition, died with him. So did FDR’s ability to deal with Joseph Stalin, the Russian leader, in a partly even-handed way. President Truman immediately came under the influence of conservatives like Jimmy Byrnes of South Carolina, the military, Wall Streeters, and the southern senators who controlled much of the Senate. When he learned that the United States had successfully exploded an atomic device, the diffident son who had always been bullied at school became a cock of the walk. He dominated and threatened Stalin at the Potsdam conference, and he heartily approved the bombing of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, even though the Japanese had already signaled they were defeated, and even in the face of contrary advice from some on his general staff. And thereafter, he bought completely into the concept of the Cold War with the Soviet Union that dominated world affairs for the second half of the twentieth century.
No one knows, of course, what might have happened if Henry Wallace had been allowed the victory he clearly deserved at that 1944 convention. Or if he had been successful in his independent run for the presidency as a Progressive in 1948 (he lost badly, viciously tarred as a Communist, and finishing behind even the Dixiecrat, Strom Thurmond). But given his record as a man who wanted peace instead of conflict, who understood that cooperation rather than competition was the only way forward for a world weary of war and selfishness, we can speculate. As early as 1933, in one of his first speeches as Agriculture Secretary, he said to the Federal Council of Churches that “the world is one world.” In the Fall of that same year, he said in a radio broadcast, “Selfishness has ceased to be the mainspring of progress…there is something more…There is a new social machinery in the making.” In 1941, in answer to Time/Life publisher Henry Luce’s claim that the twentieth century was poised to become the ‘American Century,’ a time of unparalleled power and domination for the United States, Wallace countered with his most famous utterance, the Century-of-the-Common-Man speech:

Some have spoken of the “American Century.” I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come out of this war—can be and must be the century of the common man. Everywhere the common man must learn to build his own industries with his own hands in a practical fashion…No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations. Older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the push to industrialization, but there must be neither military nor economic imperialism…the people’s revolution is on the march, and the devil and all his angels cannot prevent it.

Finally, and on a similar theme, he said in a 1957 interview with Rexford Tugwell that what all people need is a “Declaration of Interdependence, a recognition of our essential unity and our absolute reliance upon one another.”
This is not to say that Henry A. Wallace never made a mistake, or would have been an effective president. One never knows about that. But given what has happened to others who ascended to that high office (Harry Truman comes immediately to mind, whom Wallace described in his diary as “a small, opportunistic man, a man of good instincts, but therefore probably all the more dangerous”), we might expect that something similar would have happened to Wallace. We might also expect that much of the suffering and wastage of American treasure that has been sunk into wars and preparation for wars and propaganda about the alleged strength of our enemies necessitating wars might have been avoided. We might also expect—especially from his behavior on the campaign trail in 1948, when he refused to abide by segregationist laws in the South and openly drove alongside his Negro secretary—that the endlessly delayed road to full civil rights for African Americans and full economic rights for them and all Americans might have taken a front, rather than a back seat in our national affairs. How refreshing, how salutary, how even salvational that might have been.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Two American Families

The title above is that of a Frontline documentary by the irrepressible Bill Moyers that aired last night, July 9, 2013. Needless to say, it’s a marvelous piece of work—one that Moyers and his colleague Kathleen Hughes started all the way back in 1991 when the unraveling of America’s industrial base was going into high gear. It follows two Milwaukee families—one white, one black, both with several children, and houses of their own—as they move from fairly secure lower-middle class existence to near poverty after the closing of factories and then several more economic shocks culminating in the financial meltdown of 2008. In both cases, the male of the house started with a job in the manufacturing sector that once made Milwaukee a prosperous industrial city. The comparison with any number of cities in both the Midwest and the Northeast and even the South is quite obvious. Like Detroit, like Bridgeport CT where I grew up, the busy factories in these towns supported countless families in the period after World War II, providing jobs with good benefits and wages that allowed a single, usually male worker to support his family, pay a mortgage, send his children to school and college, and save for retirement. Since then, under Ronald Reagan and the conservative assault on government, unions, and the social safety net created by Democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, those jobs have withered away. Corporations have been allowed to take their factories to countries like China or Bangladesh or Mexico where labor costs are a fraction of American costs. The result has been an American landscape littered with boarded-up factories, and increasingly since 2008, boarded-up houses whose one-time occupants can no longer afford the mortgages or the upkeep of neighborhoods going to seed.
Moyers takes each family in turn and shows its relative peace and prosperity in 1991. These families are not wealthy, by any means, but both live in tidy neighborhoods and both have men who work in apparently secure factory jobs. The white guy, Tony Neumann, works as a machinist in the Briggs & Stratton factory making what turns out to be the princely sum of $18 per hour, plus benefits. His wife Terry can be a stay-at-home mom, taking care of their two, then three children. On the strength of the Briggs & Stratton job, they buy a house, with a mortgage of $820 a month, and a plastic backyard pool. The African American Stanleys appear similarly prosperous at first, with Claude working a good job at the A.O. Smith factory. They have five children and Claude doubles as a preacher, then a pastor at his own tiny church. This faith sustains him and his family through very hard times, and also gives the Stanleys what appears to be a bit more of a social connection than the Neumanns—though the Neumanns are also religious, being devout Catholics.
But even before the 1990s, things begin to go sour for both families. Both men lose their good factory jobs when their factories depart for cheaper climes. Though this is a major blow, both remain positive and apply for what will be lesser jobs, hoping that something will replace the lost income. It turns out to be a vain hope: one of the points made by the documentary is that good factory jobs are leaving Milwaukee and elsewhere in the United States forever. Tony goes out right away and applies for jobs at places like Wal-Mart, Sam’s, McDonald’s and other ‘big box’ horrors, all offering less than $6 per hour. It is a huge comedown from the $18 he was making, but he keeps doing it, keeps trying to retrain himself for something a little better. Each time he finds a promising job, however, that too falls through when the factory or business closes. Knowing that the wolf is at the door (the wolf being the bank that keeps demanding the now-in-arrears mortgage payment), Kathy tries at first to sell skin-care products, something she can do from home. She ends up losing money on the venture and gives it up. She is forced to go to food banks to keep her family fed. The scene is much the same for the Stanleys. Having lost his good job, Claude takes a job waterproofing basements for less than $7/hour, not even half what he was making. It is an exhausting, grimy job but he does it with energy and eventually becomes foreman for a little more money. But with five kids to support, the Stanleys have the same trouble making the mortgage payments as the Neumanns. So Jackie, who had also worked at Briggs, finds a job selling real estate—she had been studying it even while working at Briggs when she saw the handwriting on the wall. Unable to sell in other areas of the city because of her color, she still sells a house every now and then and manages to keep her family barely above water. But then Claude contracts a lung disease and ends up in the hospital for several weeks, with a bill of over $30,000. Buoyed by faith, they manage to keep going, with the sons starting their own lawn-care service, and Claude working on a garbage truck. And on the strength of their combined drive, they even manage to send their eldest son, Keith, to Alabama State College where he somehow—borrowing on credit cards and every other means—manages to graduate. This sets them a bit apart, for at the end of the film, we see Keith having managed to find a good job working with a city councilman, owning his own house, and even supporting one of his sister’s sons. But having seen the struggle his parents went and still go through, he has refrained from marriage, fearing he might not be able to afford children of his own.
As to the Neumanns, their trajectory is much more severe. Beaten down by constant worry, Tony and Kathy finally split into divorce. By this time, their children are grown but each one seems headed for the same fate, struggling with the low-wage jobs that now dominate Milwaukee’s economy—if it can be called that. Kathy is finally unable to pay her mortgage, and despite her pleas with the bank for a modification, lands in foreclosure. The most agonizing moment is when she returns to the house that once rang with the noise of her family, now owned by an Asian couple who purchased it in foreclosure for around $40,000. Some of her last words are poignant, even tragic, acknowledging that she doesn’t think she’ll ever get back to where she was, even though she has undergone training and become an aide in a nursing facility, working the overnight shift. Salary, $11.50 an hour, plus benefits. She lives in the house of a friend, having crashed with relatives on and off since the foreclosure, the only dream she has left that of being able to buy a place in a trailer park. When asked by Moyers if she thought she’d ever be secure, she said she doubted it, given the way the economy was going. What then? asked Moyers. Just keep going, she said:
“We’ll just work until we collapse and keel over and die.”
Two American Families packs a powerful punch—at least for those who can imagine the same thing happening to them. Because that is its radical message: the American Dream—at least as it has always been touted to average Americans, that with hard work, anyone can succeed—is dead. Has been dead for quite some time. For as the financiers and banksters and CEOs and hucksters consume (or perhaps one should say “steal”) an ever greater portion of the national wealth, average Americans like the Neumanns and the Stanleys are left with the indigestible crumbs of low-wage slavery. Through no fault of their own—rather through the greed of corporatists and militarists and their precious globalization—the jobs they could once count on have disappeared. Gone for good. Without the means to a good college education, without the communal power needed to counter the satanic power of capital, they are condemned to lives of anguish, poverty, humiliation, and self-blame. And unless something drastic is done, and quickly, more and more Americans, even those who manage to borrow and work their way through college with ever mounting debts, are sure to join them.

Lawrence DiStasi