A Perfect Storm: All Isn’t Lost Part Three

In the previous articles we examined how Trump came to power and the potential consequences of his rule.  As current events unfold, we learn more about the kind of administration we’ll likely see.  For instance, Trump’s decision to place the EPA in the hands of Scott Pruitt, attorney general of Oklahoma and fervent climate science denier, speaks to the grim reality that the richest nation in the history of the human race will fiddle while mother earth burns.  His pick of Andy Puzder, anti-union anti-labor CEO of CKE restaurants, signals a striking reversal on his pro-labor populist promises.  Selection of the CEO of Exxon Mobile, Rex Tillerson, to represent America as Secretary of State has stunned analysts; his ties to Russia, support of free trade, and long career in a company liable in a cover up of its own climate change investigations forty years ago undermine science, national security, and Trump’s own phony populist message.  Trump’s dismissal of the intelligence community in evidence damning to his electoral victory, as well as consistent downplay of Russia’s precarious power dynamics herald a frightening new “madman theory” with potential for devastating consequences.   Trump’s knee-jerk Twitter tantrums, such as that directed at Carrier union lead Chuck Jones, and grandiose claims of his “massive landslide victory” are a stark contrast to cool contemplation we might hope to see in world leaders.  His litigiousness and fragile ego dance passionately hand-in-hand as he seeks to halt recounts, or as investigative journalist for Rolling Stone Greg Palast so accurately puts them, actual counts of ignored votes, in the states pivotal to the electoral win.  So for those of us who fear the post-truth era and political cronyism almost certain to thrive under a Trump presidency, what can we do?

Remarkable to America is a sense of impotence, apathy (notice 42% of Americans simply didn’t vote), and the considerable atomization of society.  A study by Robert Putnam of Harvard a few decades ago demonstrated a correlation between more time with the television and a fragmenting of civic bonds; I suspect the diatom of a man and his television is only part of the story, as the rise of Bernays’ public relations industry over the past ninety years, along with a century of fervent anti-union policymaking and philosophy ranging from Wilson’s red scare to McCarthyism to Friedman, Rand, and the neo-liberal program certainly have undermined civic structures conducive to solidarity.  In fact, the striking distrust of public institutions is certainly no surprise given the euphoric response of academia and the political class to said neo-liberalism.  The truth in all ugliness appeared bare when Alan Greenspan testified before Congress some years ago to remark that “growing worker insecurity” within the United States had produced an “healthy economic performance;” that is, this second gilded age in which the richest one tenth of one percent of income earners have achieved the share they had in the roaring twenties is mostly due to exploitation and abuse of the working class.  The unusually violent labor history of the U.S. which features bitter class and racial divisions fueled by factory owners and their supporters in all levels of government (a deeply pervasive and persistent feature of American history), along with the aforementioned PR industry, the brainchild of American academic Edward Bernays, have crippled the union, the very bedrock of most working class amenities such as the 40 hour work week, paid vacation and sick time, and laws against child labor.  Even now, corporations bend and lobby legislators to accommodate definitions permitting skirting of even the most basic labor protections through Taylorism and legal machinations.  Though it’s quite obvious how these mechanisms might disenchant working class and impoverished people, this apathy, ironically, must be overcome to address its causes.

So, we should acknowledge the enormous societal progress achieved over the past one hundred years.   The below represent a small sample of the achievements with special care to describe the actions and outcomes.  An emergent pattern of these accomplishments should be apparent.

  • During the first gilded age in the 1890s, wealth accumulated quite quickly amongst bankers, industrialists, and the political class.  Most of the efforts generating this wealth were born out of chain gangs (a continuation of slavery following the North-South Compact of 1877), exploitation of sharecroppers, and self-described “wage slavery” of factory workers in the cities.  Over time, many of these workers unified in a concerted struggle to share in the benefits of an economy theretofore serving only the “masters of mankind”, to borrow Adam Smith’s designation of the overlords. The “vile maxim” of these masters was “all for ourselves and nothing for other people.”  Farmers created coops and unions (the largest of which, the Farmer’s Alliance actually appeared in my home state of Texas) and textile mill workers on the east coast organized and striked for safer working conditions, shorter than fourteen hour workdays, and higher incomes.   Aside from the setback of Woodrow Wilson’s aforementioned red scare and harsh treatment of dissenters such as Eugene Debs and anti-war labor leaders during the shameful debacle that was the first world war, organized labor surged as working conditions for most Americans deteriorated steadily in the 1920s and into the Great Depression.  Militant labor organizations carried out sit-down strikes in the second term of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, a phenomenon utterly terrifying to the wealthy elites; after all, sit-down strikes in the factories are but one step removed from worker takeover of industry, a notion not without precedent in American history.  With a sympathetic administration in the White House, the painful struggles began to pay off with Roosevelt’s New Deal.
  • An increasingly powerful movement of women achieved the franchise in 1920, the culmination of a dedicated popular struggle decades in the making; they fought hard for access to education, gainful employment “outside-the-home,” and decent healthcare and gender independence.  The battle continues today, but the victories already accomplished are astonishing when one ponders the paradigm shift in gender roles.
  • African Americans, criminalized following the end of Reconstruction, would resist but continued to suffer under extreme duress for the decades to follow.  The rebranded slave labor essentially underwrote the wealth of the industrial revolution.  Civil rights groups in the 1930s continued to pursue a genuine franchise for African Americans; state and local institutions ensured most blacks couldn’t vote, either through literacy tests, poll taxes, or laws criminalizing black life [SOURCE].  Blacks serving in the second world war returned home hoping to share in equality for the first time.  Through considerable struggle, blacks began to reap benefits in the 1960s with a surprising ally in Lyndon Johnson; during his administration, Congress passed both the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, the former of which could be the single most significant piece of civil rights legislation ever passed.  These achievements, again, were windfall from highly organized, hardworking popular movements coordinating their efforts throughout the nation; I’d highly recommend Ari Berman’s recent title Give Us The Ballot on the Voting Rights Act.  These advances haven’t come without cost: the slow progress forward often precedes a regression, as one can clearly see in COINTELPRO‘s assault on blacks and further black criminalization.  The War on Drugs and the state fascination with so-called “law and order” are essentially code for further repression and elimination of superfluous population unable to work due to shrinking manufacturing.  In 1967, interracial marriage was still illegal in a third of the states.  As I mentioned in a previous article, I can remember the vestiges and persistent, ugly legacy of segregation in my hometown in Texas in the 1980s and even 1990s.  Blacks lived in a certain area of town, largely segregated to their own elementary school.  The major recreational area in town, the Leonard Park, featured a large public pool, playground equipment, walking trails, picnic areas, and the Frank Buck Zoo, well-known for an elephant and other attractions.  Across the road was dilapidated Moffett Park with a small public pool and no other amenities.  Nonetheless, schools are at least legally desegregated, and race relations have improved largely over the past century.  Of course, we have a long way to go.
  • Consider the evolution of society’s perspectives on authoritarianism and war : the second world war left the American public mostly docile with respect to state violence with the triumph of American exceptionalism over the totalitarianism of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo.  Even by the early 1960s when purported dove John F. Kennedy increased violence in Vietnam to gain access to the vast rubber, tin, and oil resources and “contain China”, scarcely could one find any mention in media.  Early efforts to protest the war during JFK’s years led to violent break-ups by students.  By the late 1960s, peace movements proliferated as Americans steadily began to learn of the horrors of chemical and biological warfare waged against a near defenseless agricultural people.  The release of the Pentagon papers by Daniel Ellsberg, catalogued by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, revealed a striking but unsurprising delta between state-reported justification and internal objectives.  The incredible outpouring of solidarity for our victims, our wounded veterans, and disgust for the establishment felled Johnson’s reelection bid and partially destroyed Nixon’s favor.  The political class responded to anti-war movements with two seminal documents, the Powell memorandum and the proceedings of the Trilateral Commission.  Lewis Powell, a conservative lawyer later appointed to SCOTUS by Nixon, criticized public education for failing to generate graduates who “believe in the American system;”  that is, anything but unbridled support of state violence and corruption is tantamount to undermining the American way of life.  He took particular notice of Ralph Nader, a then rising star in consumer advocacy; his specifically criticized Nader’s stance that corporate executives knowingly selling lethal or dangerous products should face liability.  Powell also persisted a long tradition of complaining that bankers and businessmen are under imminent attack from a liberal-bias media and academia, despite both overwhelmingly supporting the war in its earlier years as well as the vast military industrial complex .  The liberal answer in the Trilateral Commission was a non-governmental agency staffed with internationalists from Europe, Japan, and the U.S. founded to address “the crisis of democracy” in the dramatic pressing of demands by popular movements over the past decade.  In Samuel Huntington’s report for the commission, these internationalists bemoaned the failure of the “institutions responsible for indoctrinating the young” and the “excess of democracy,” meaning the increasing desire to shape policy on the part of the “bewildered herd” as bemoaned by Walter Lippman, undermines the capacities of the responsible men to attend to the affairs of state.  This stark and rather honest expression of concern by both political parties follows closely the concerns of the masters since the nation’s founding: the political and aristocratic classes very much fear the population.  Yet despite the beating back of attitudes, Americans are more opposed to war as a general rule and often will protest before a war begins.
  • A popular movement dedicated to environmentalism appeared in just the last handful of decades as the noxious effects of urbanization and industrialization on air, water, and wildlife became increasingly obvious.  Though the propagandization of environmental policy has affected polling numbers in recent years, Americans throughout the past thirty-five years have cared a good deal about the ecosystem.  Scarcely did such concern exist one hundred years ago, despite species and habitat destruction occurring with alarming regularity.  For instance, the American bison (buffalo) all but disappeared in a campaign of biological warfare against the Native Americans who critically relied upon them for food, clothing, and tools; aside from the much more serious crime of genocide, this was an egregious act against the ecosystem largely passing without comment.   Similar instances of extinctions occurred with little notice, such as that of the passenger pigeon; a public awareness in recent generations has emerged which recognizes the fragile balance of the biosphere.
  • Consider the stark evolution of gay rights over the past sixty years.  Before 1950, homosexuality was illegal and diagnosable as a mental illness; the U.S. military performed ghastly experiments on gay servicemen in the early post-war years.  Gays routinely faced (and continue to face) discrimination in housing and employment, though popular movements in the wake of Stonewall have made great progress. More recent statistics on marriage equality demonstrate an uptick in support.  Transgendered persons continue to suffer incredible discrimination; their continued plight is much in need of activism
  • Consider the remarkable achievement of Bernie Sanders’ campaign: deemed an outsider and no credible threat to the Democratic party, America’s youth raised him up as a leader who very likely would be president in January had the DNC not carried out obscene shenanigans to defeat him.  He received no corporate or political support; it was simply a popular movement underwriting him.  I was present for one of his political rallies; though I generally don’t attend rallies (they’re loud and generally center on gladiator politics with little or no substance), I was quite very much pleased with the articulate, historically relevant message Bernie offered: how many political debates make mention of Allende in Chile? We’ll return to this in later articles…  I was particularly moved by the outpouring of young people concerned for their planet and their people.

The pervasive theme of the achievements enumerated above should be clear; these leaps forward have never, ever been gifts from on high: they are the fruits of hard, dedicated people’s struggles.  Not military might or the butt of a gun, but concerted, organized popular movements pressing for their fair shake.  So my answer to how to enchant the disenchanted?  We begin by reminding our peoples of this forgotten history.  We explain, crucially, that we are NOT impotent, nor are we incapable of mounting a defense against institutional assault on personhood, human rights, and victims of state violence.  It can begin with whatever issue is important to you, whether it be auto workers in Michigan, water protectors in North Dakota, or even just getting a stop sign erected at a busy intersection near your house.  An activist I respect greatly, David Swanson, once wrote that activism appears not to succeed until the moment before breakthrough, as the powerful wouldn’t dare hint at your success.  It’s by no mistake that Americans feel powerless; a careful reading of the notes by the founding fathers, as well as an analysis of the early form of which the republic took, demonstrates a profound fear of the population.  Power was restricted to a quite small selection of the wealthy crowd by federal concessions to state power, the electoral college, and voting requirements.  The founders’ intentions seem to include disempowering the principal adversary of any national government, the population itself.  Learning our history and sharing this knowledge with others enhances meaningfully their impressions of their capacities to effect change.

This generation of human beings has inherited the most awesome, pivotal responsibilities of any since the origin of the species.  The critical decisions we make today will determine the fate of our children and grandchildren, to say nothing of those of us likely to hang around another fifty or sixty years.  We therefore are neither powerless nor hopelessly doomed; we can turn the tide, even in the midst of hysterical frauds like Donald Trump or career politicians such as Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton.  We can build a sustained people’s movement which addresses the issues all humans face, be them white workers duped by Trump’s artifice, minorities, immigrants, victims of state violence and climate change, and the like.  We can organize with like-minded individuals who genuinely hunger for knowledge and for change.  We can try to reverse the damage dealt by post-truth media and politics by offering insightful, meaningful alternatives.  A great starting place is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a fantastic treatise on American history through the eyes of segments of the population generally ignored in the official telling; Democracy Now, founded by journalist Amy Goodman, is an alternative, 100% viewer-supported, news station recently celebrating twenty years of reporting on people, war, and peace; I’d also highly recommend the works of Noam Chomsky: most of you in computer science or cognitive science will recognize the eminent linguist, but his many books on activism and world politics are incredibly well-researched, sourced, and offer a perspective you almost won’t read anywhere else; I’d start with How the World Works, and his documentaries Manufacturing Consent and Requiem for the American Dream; many of his talks and articles are free online.

We’ll continue with more articles in the days ahead noting that though we confront the greatest existential threats in our history, all is not lost.

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