Back to No Future: Daze of Rage
One doesn’t have to be particularly observant to notice that we have entered dangerous territory in our public realm. The fact that the Republican Party will nominate a man who makes openly racist appeals, attacks by name and ethnic background a judge presiding over a case in which his business is a party (in a money case, not even a matter of judicial philosophy), insists that as President he will cut back press protections and “have people sue you like you never get sued before,” refuses to rule out first strike use of nuclear weapons, flirts with authoritarians and dictators, ridicules the disabled, women, protestors, “the Hispanics,” etc., etc., really should be enough to prove the point. It’s as though Donald Trump has amped up and spliced together the civil rights “acumen” of Barry Goldwater, the bristling, aggrieved temperament of Richard Nixon, the policy knowledge of Ronald Reagan, and the civil liberties disregard of Woodrow Wilson to make something no one could ever have envisioned, not even Mary Shelley. Could things be worse? Well, the fact that his only opposition will be a lackluster candidate with a history of personal corruption, whose campaign seems to be based on a notion of the cult of her personality (“I’m a Hillary voter!”) and who has a track record of underperforming expectations is a bracing reality. And really, is there anyone who actually looks forward with relish to the Presidency of Hillary Clinton?
But not everything is about Presidential elections. After all, we have survived Nixon, Reagan and W. Could a megalomaniac, authoritarian, know-nothing be so much worse? Well, I suppose, much as one hates to consider it.
The real trap we find ourselves in is that the Overton Window has moved so far to the right over the last half century that returning to the center seems beyond possibility. (I’m not even talking utopia, or revolution, or socialism. I’m only saying returning to the status quo ante Richard Nixon is not even within reach.) And there is really no organizing going on that gives a glimmer of hope. Unions have been gutted, left-leaning groups are pretty much ineffective or MIA. Traditional liberal allies (civil rights groups, public sector unions, liberal professional “activists”) have settled for a neoliberal economic policy and neoconservative military policy personified by Hillary Clinton, a candidate so far out of step with 20th century, mainstream Democratic policy that she doesn’t even see how the repeal of Glass-Steagall, a cornerstone of New Deal economic protection and modernization of U.S. capitalism, a repeal that was approved by her own husband, by the way, was a mistake to be remedied. The Great Man theory of history may be bunk. But it seems that without FDR, Stevenson, Humphrey, JFK, LBJ, McGovern or Mondale, the Democratic Party has reverted to the conservative national organization, dependent on local machines or ad hoc interest groups, that it was in the late 19th century.
All of this is of course so obvious that it probably does not need repeating. But I bring it up because in the past several weeks two trips to libraries show how far we are from being able to dig ourselves out of our hole. The first was a trip to the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York. I was looking at the papers of James Rowe, an early brain truster who became something of a political “pro”, advising Truman on how to deal with a recalcitrant Congress (see the famous so-called Clark Clifford memo), opposed both the Japanese internment (quitting the administration and volunteering for the navy) and Vietnam war, became a campaign advisor to Humphrey (in 1960 and 1968); in short, he lived politics not for power, but to advance principle. Have we seen that in the era of Jody Powell, Susan Estrich, James Carville, Dick Morris, Rahm Emanuel, Patti Solis Doyle and Mark Penn? In fact, just being in the Library-Museum was a reminder that the idea that government could be an agent for significant progressive change affecting the lives of ordinary people in the U.S. and around the world is a concept regarded as so quaint these days that we see it only in museums.
The second shock to my system was in the Columbia Rare Books-Manuscript library yesterday. I happened to be looking through the “University Protest and Activism Collection, 1958-1999” collection, which put in perspective the quantum difference between the student, civil-rights, anti-war and militant movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the ad hoc, poorly organized and loosely ideological “movement” of Bernie Sanders followers. (Yes, I voted for Bernie, but I did so without illusions.) Mark Rudd now makes a point of saying that attention to organizing is more important than obtaining publicity for a cause no matter how noble. But we are flat out empty of Malcolm Xs, Huey Newtons, Tom Haydens, Mark Rudds, Cesar Chavezes, Thurgood Marshalls, John Lewises, Daniel Berrigans, etc. The closest there is to organized thought leadership these days is late night “leftish” snark and click-bait internet e-zines. (Of course, there are also the disconnected cry-from-the-wilderness bloggers; but we, by definition, are not organizers; in fact, we make Simeon Stylites look downright gregarious.)
All of this is depressing enough. But then before leaving the Columbia library yesterday I went to a computer to check my email and (of course) the home page was the Columbia University default page. And there was a startling (to me) news item: This year Columbia not only graduated its first ROTC student in nearly half a century but also allowed him to be commissioned in Low Rotunda! (Those who remember the Columbia occupation might recall that the spark that ignited the strike was the discipline of six students who protested inside of Low Rotunda the university’s shadowy contracts with the military state, including the CIA, through an organization called the Institute for Defense Analyses.) If there was ever something that had become incorporated into my deepest core beliefs it was that Columbia, after 1967-1972, would never allow ROTC recruiting on campus again. (Although the occupation of Columbia had many, many consequences, good and bad, the administrators who imposed the discipline were ousted, Columbia’s connection with IDA was ended and eventually ROTC recruitment was banned as well.) And yet, last month the Dean of Columbia College offered this insipid send off to a new naval officer birthed by the campus that once symbolized anti-war militancy: “Your Columbia College road goes on forever.” This must be considered lyricism in the new education-military-entertainment complex. Welcome to the reality that Trump-Clinton is only a symbol for.