Friday, October 24, 2008

Why I Am Voting for Barack Obama

Before I get into it, I have to say that I am not a member of any political party, and there’s probably no single politician I could believe in completely, not quite even Barack Obama. There’s something about that line of work that diminishes even the best of them to some degree or another. Everybody knows that, I guess. So in approaching politics, Presidential campaigns especially, I am fighting an ongoing battle against cynicism. At the same time, it has become clear that this election is of the utmost importance to the future of the United States and therefore the whole world. For me, disengagement from electoral politics is not an option in 2008.

Why such an important election? There are numerous reasons, one of the main ones being the precarious state of the economy. This is something that directly affects me and most of the people I know, given my own economic status (below the poverty line). In fact I have already felt its effects. And it doesn’t take an economist to figure out who is primarily responsible for our current woes. We note who has been in the White House for the last eight years, and despite his attempts to peel off the stigma of G. W. Bush, it’s pretty obvious that John McCain offers the same failed approach to these issues that Bush and his cohorts have taken. McCain’s previous involvement in the Keating Five scandal ought to be a clue to his relationship with wealthy special interests. Imagine, furthermore, what could be in store for Social Security if it were to be privatized and tied to the markets (as McCain wants), the same markets that have recently hung on the brink of failure. For those of us without the luxury of a personal retirement fund, it’s a scary prospect.

But as important as the issue of the economy is, there are even greater dangers in store for us if McCain and Sarah Palin were somehow to slip through the net of the current poll numbers and be elected. McCain has already disgraced himself in this campaign and is now but a shadow of the semi-respectable figure he seemed to some in 2000. He and surrogates on his behalf have stooped to the basest Rovian mudslinging. His pandering to the Right, and embrace of extreme fundamentalist Christian oligarchs like John Hagee and Rod Parsley (both of whom he was eventually forced to repudiate when it became clear how offensive their views really were), were of course transparent political moves designed to make himself more appealing to the conservative base of the Republican Party. Despite being smeared by the Bush campaign in 2000, McCain has wholeheartedly supported the Bush administration since 2004, as symbolized in their famous hug. Any shred of self-respect was surely out the window from that point on.

All of this shows that McCain is now prepared to do anything to get elected, including embracing the socially conservative agenda he stood against in 2000. Far worse than the association with fringe fundamentalist ministers, however, is Sarah Palin herself, who McCain cannot at this point repudiate even if he wanted to. Leaving aside Palin’s own apparent extremist religious views per se, and her own political corruption scandal (Troopergate), her extremist right-wing political views are quite shocking in themselves. Incredibly, she may be even more extreme than George W. Bush, and of course given McCain’s age, she could be a hair’s breath away from the Presidency if elected.

Palin has links with the Alaskan Independence Party. Indeed, as has been reported, her husband Todd Palin was a member of that party for seven years and Sarah Palin herself addressed the party’s conference just this year, telling them to “Keep up the good work.” It might be interesting to discover what kind of work the AIP is up to. It was founded as a radical right-wing secessionist party, and remains about the same today with only slightly less emphasis on the secession part — but still attracts the sympathies of neo-Confederates and white supremacists. (There’s a good article on which goes into greater detail regarding the activities of the AIP and Palin’s links to the party.) While Republicans have been trying to hype Obama’s supposed link with William Ayers, the ex-Weather Underground member, Palin’s current connections should be far more alarming than a retired 60’s radical like Ayers.

Of especial note, the AIP is affiliated with the overtly theocratic Constitution Party. Claiming that the U.S. Constitution “established a Republic rooted in Biblical law,” the preamble to the Constitution Party’s platform states: “This great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.... The goal of the Constitution Party is to restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations and to limit the federal government to its Constitutional boundaries.” It’s one thing to hold religious views, whatever they may be, evangelical Christian or otherwise. It’s another thing to want to impose them on the whole country in this manner. Palin’s association with the AIP, and therefore the Constitution Party, makes her not very dissimilar to the Taliban, for example, or to any other Islamist group which wants to impose sharia law.

Palin in my view is a crypto-fascist demagogue, and represents a dangerous Trojan horse to American politics. We have seen her rallies (and even McCain’s) turn into anti-Obama hate-fests, with CNN reporting (on Oct. 11):

One member of the Palin audience in Jacksonville, Florida, Tuesday shouted out “Treason.” And at another rally in the state Monday, Palin’s mention of the Obama-Ayers tie caused one member to yell out: “Kill him” — though it was unclear if it was targeted at Obama or Ayers.

At several recent rallies, Palin has stirred up crowds by mentioning the “liberal media.” Routinely, there are boos at every mention of The New York Times and the “mainstream media,” both of which are staples of Palin’s stump speech.

Some audience members are openly hostile to members of the traveling press covering Palin; one crowd member hurled a racial epithet at an African-American member of the press in Clearwater, Florida, on Monday.
We have also seen the authoritarian Lee County, Florida, Sheriff Mike Scott, in full police uniform, whip up the crowd at still another Palin rally with these words: “On November 4th, let’s leave Barack Hussein Obama wondering what happened!” Clearly his use of Obama’s middle name in this context is meant to identify him as “other” and therefore suspect.

While there are undoubtedly many, many decent people at her rallies too, Palin has become a lightning rod for the undercurrent of prejudice and fear that still exists in American society. Playing to it in this way is how the Nazis were able to come to power. Indeed, the McCain-Palin campaign has opened the door for other Republican figures to exhibit their own crypto-fascist tendencies. In televised comments reminiscent of the McCarthy era, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann recently called for a media investigation into how many members of the U.S. Congress hold “anti-American” views, which she also accused Obama of holding. Rep. Robin Hayes of North Carolina told a McCain rally that “Liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God.”

Palin herself has actually referred to “pro-America areas” of the country, saying, “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.” While this raises the question of how sympathizing with an Alaskan secessionist party can possibly be “pro-America,” the further irony is that, according to the 2000 census, 79% of all Americans live in urban areas, while only 21% live in rural areas. 58% of Americans live in urban areas with populations of 200,000 or more. In other words, a clear majority of Americans live in big cities, with a further 10% living in urban areas with populations of 50,000-199,999. So this notion that the “real” America is to be found in small towns is nothing but wishful thinking. The real America is wherever Americans live, and more often than not it’s in a city.

Palin and the others were forced to apologize or otherwise back away from their comments, but nonetheless I think this probably reveals the deeper thinking behind the McCain-Palin campaign. Their strategy is to demonize anyone considered “other,” or intellectual, who lives in a city, or who somehow deviates from their idealized fantasy of a white, rural, conservative, Christian America — indeed anyone who disagrees with them on a whole range of issues. When even a noted conservative thinker like Peggy Noonan (Ronald Reagan’s and George H. W. Bush’s former speechwriter) writes that “the Palin candidacy is a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics,” you know something is wrong.

Up until this point, I have essentially been putting forward a “vote against” argument. But the case for Obama is a substantial one. Aside from the fact that he is generally closer to my own positions on domestic politics and international issues, he is also an important figure on a symbolic level. Colin Powell recently said that he is a “transformational” figure, and while I think that may be a little bit overly optimistic, Obama certainly is an inspiring figure who is capable of bringing about at least some degree of change in the political landscape. And I admit I have been inspired at times watching Obama’s speeches. To me he represents a breath of fresh air, relief after eight too-long years of the Bush administration and all the problems it has created. It is time for a new generation to take over, as it must every so often.

This is not to say that Obama will make everything great, or that he will single-handedly eliminate poverty and injustice. And probably he is in the pocket of someone, like all politicians are. But he is a far better choice than McCain, whose campaign is being run by corporate lobbyists. Far better than McCain, who would stock the Supreme Court with yet more conservative judges. Far better than McCain, who wants free trade with questionable regimes like that of Colombia. It was heartening to see, in the third Presidential debate (Oct. 15), Obama disagree with McCain’s suggestion that we initiate a free-trade agreement with Colombia. When Obama questioned the morality of such an agreement with a country in which labor leaders and trade unionists are presently being assassinated, McCain rolled his eyes in indignation, seemingly livid that anyone would dare to oppose him on this issue. For me, it was a signal moment. In his reaction McCain looked like a crazy old man all of the sudden, while Obama remained cool, refusing to let a cranky McCain knock him off of a principled stand.

We are faced with two choices. One is an outmoded world-view based on an unrealistic vision of the make-up of the present-day United States. This is the backward world-view of McCain, Palin, and their surrogates, which sees anyone who is not like them as suspect or “anti-American.” It is the failed policy of trickle-down economics, of tax cuts for the rich, of war for oil, and “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” It is an extremist vision of “pro-America areas,” of “a Republic rooted in Biblical law,” and also of using your political office to harass whoever you may have a personal vendetta against (Palin) or to do favors for your rich friends (McCain). It is the tactic of attacking the messenger, the media, when they call you on your shit.

The other choice is the world-view represented by Obama. Obama’s vision is forward-looking and embraces the America of the future, including people from every background be it urban or rural, religious or not, “intellectual” or not — in other words, an inclusionary and heterogeneous vision. Given his own cultural background, Obama realizes that the hostile homogeneity espoused by McCain-Palin is not a realistic template for this country. Obama understands what it’s like not to come from a privileged upbringing. Obama is focused on the middle and working class, not on the super-rich. Again, no, he’s not going to suddenly wave a magic wand and solve all of our problems, but America needs the opportunity that Obama embodies in order to seize a new political direction for itself.

Going down the McCain-Palin path would be no different from and probably an even bigger disaster than Bush, in my view. While in troubled economic times some might be tempted to cling to the old certainties, the fact is that these are nothing but the certainties of the last eight years — cronyism, financial crisis, and a hopeless war. Obama represents the possibility of renewal through change, the only way renewal can truly come about. And so his slogan of CHANGE is not merely a campaign slogan but is in fact packed with meaning and hope. Of course the symbolism of Obama getting elected won’t count for much if he can’t somehow foster improvement in people’s real lives. Time will tell if he, or for that matter if we the voters, can bring this vision of change to fruition. I hope we can.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Fifteen Project, number 10

I have guest-edited the current edition (number 10) of the online journal The Fifteen Project. It contains poetry by Maurice Scully, David Stone, John Thomas Menesini, Karen Lillis, Alan Jude Moore, Kevin Higgins, Shannon Ward, David Rowe, Patrick Chapman, Todd Swift, Emily Rutter, Liam Mac Sheóinín, Keith Gaustad, and Nigel McLoughlin, and prose by Thomas E. Kennedy.

Some of the contributors are Irish, some are Irish-American, and some are neither of the above. I liked this non-connecting connection in putting the thing together. Much of the work included expresses a similar disregard for traditional boundaries, I think. I explain it all in my preface.

My thanks to the producer and usual editor of The Fifteen Project, Pat Lawrence, for (among other things) helping to make this edition’s color scheme look something like a Powers whiskey bottle.

[Update, 2/09: Sadly, The Fifteen Project has gone offline, and the above links to it will now take you nowhere. A pity, but I guess these things happen. Thanks again to everyone who was involved in issue 10.]