The Twilight of Obama-Time

by Alexander Cockburn, November 4, 2010

The sun rises this week on a new American land­scape, the same way it rose on a new American land­scape almost exactly two years ago.

That was the dawn of Obama-time. Millions of Americans had dined delightedly on Obama's rhetoric of dreams and preened at his homilies about the inherent moral greatness of the American people.

Obama and the Democrats triumphed at the polls. The pundits hailed a “tectonic shift” in our national poli­tics, perhaps even a registration of the possibility that we had entered a “post-racial” era.

The realities of American politics don't change much from year to year. The “politics of division” which Obama denounced are the faithful reflection of national divisions of wealth and resources wider today than they have been at any time since the late 1920s.

In fact the “dream” died even before Obama was elected in November 2008. Already in September that year Senator Obama, like his opponent, Senator McCain, had voted, at the behest of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (formerly of Goldman Sachs) and of Fed chair­man Ben Bernanke, for the bailout of the banks. What­ever the election result, there was to be no change in the architecture of financial power in America.

Obama now finds himself in the same sort of situa­tion that Bill Clinton found himself on November 9, 1994, the day after the Republicans won control Con­gress for the first time in 40 years.

These elections have at least offered the diversion of the Tea Party movement, as nutty a bunch as has diverted America since the Goldwater movement of 1964. Even though persuasive detective work by Coun­terPuncher Pam Martens and others established that a couple of oil millionaires from Wichita, Kansas, the Koch brothers, had been sluicing money into Tea Party-related political organizations, one can make a convinc­ing case that purely on the basis of cui bono — who stands to gain — the Democrats surely invented the Tea Party out of whole cloth.

If it wasn't for Tea Party maiden Christine O'Donnell, the Republicans would have been counting victory in Delaware as a sure thing. The victor, Democrat Chris Coons is already pledging that when elected he’ll be working to keep the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich.

Contrary to a thousand contemptuous diatribes by the left, the Tea Party is a genuine, political movement, channeling the fury and frustration of a huge slab of white Americans running small businesses — what used to be called the petit-bourgeoisie. Judging by the eager­ness with which their guards stomp or handcuff unwelcome intruders, there’s a proto-Brown Shirt element which, in different circumstances, would be eagerly preparing for a Night of the Long Knives. As things stand, their historic mission is now complete.

The World Socialist Website snootily cited a Washington Post survey finding the Tea Party to be a “disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings.” The WSW sneered that the Post was able to make contact with only 647 groups linked to the Tea Party, some of which involve only a handful of people. “The findings suggest that the breadth of the tea party may be inflated,” the WSW chortled, quoting the Post. You think the socialist left across America can boast of 647 groups, or of any single group consisting of more than a handful of people?

Who but the Tea Party people say these days that in the last analysis, the only way to change the status quo and challenge the Money Power of Wall St is to overthrow the government by force? That isn’t some whiskered Trotskyist lag like Louis Proyect, dozing on the dungheap of history like Odysseus’ lice-ridden hound Argos, woofing with alarm as the shadow of a new idea darkens the threshold.

Who really, genuinely wants to abolish the Fed, to whose destruction the left pledges ever more tepid support. Sixty per cent of Tea Party members would like to send Ben Bernanke off to the penitentiary, the same way I used to hear the late great Wright Patman vow to do to Fed chairman Arthur Burns, back in the mid-70s. Who recently called the General Electric Company “an opportunistic parasite feeding on the expansion of government? “ Who said recently, “There are strains in the Tea Party that are troubled by what they saw as a series of instances in which the middle-class and working-class people have been abused or hurt by special interests and Washington.” That was Barack Obama, though being Obama he added, “but their anger is misdirected.”

In 1995 Bill Clinton clawed himself out of the political grave by the politics of triangulation — outflanking the Republicans from the right, while retaining the loyalty of his progressive base. Can Obama display similar flexibility? The President's aides are already confiding that the White House will move right. The question is: will his liberal base tolerate their hero colluding with Republicans in seeking to destroy Medicare (more likely than an onslaught on Social Security, which the Democrats may want to run on in 2012) in the interests of political survival. If that is the course Obama takes, look for a challenge to him from another Democrat, as we head towards 2012. The same thing happened with Ted Kennedy, and his vain run against Carter for the nomination in 1979. I’m putting early money on Haley Barbour for the presidency in 2012. Let’s have a real Southern good old boy, not a faker like Clinton.

Last Call for Jerry Brown

The first time I laid eyes on Jerry Brown was in College Park, Maryland. The newly elected governor of California had belatedly plunged into the race for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, in which Jimmy Carter was marked as the favorite. With the help of the Baltimore political machine built up by Nancy Pelosi’s family, Brown stormed across Maryland. He was a good stump speaker, a refreshing contrast to Carter, with his earnest pledges about honesty and zero-based budgeting. Brown won the primary and went on to victories in California and Nevada.

Amid this bracing challenge to the peanut broker, I wended my way to Sacramento to view the governor in his local habitat. Whale song burst from loudspeakers in the street outside his office, in front of which was parked his demure official vehicle — a Plymouth Satellite. Stewart Brand, editor of the New Agers’ bible CoEvolution Quarterly, was at his elbow as an adviser. Tom Hayden was on the line.

By the time of my late spring visit, California had already peaked as the Golden State. Ahead lay accelerating destruction or misuse of the state’s natural assets, starting with water; the ruin of a marvelous system of public education; creation of a vast gulag (twenty-three prisons built since 1984); phalanxes of absurdly overpaid public employees; and paralysis of the legislature in Sacramento.

You can hang some of the blame around Brown’s neck, though not the seeds of legislative paralysis. Finger Earl Warren for that one. It was Warren’s Supreme Court that issued two decisions in the early 1960s — Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims — ruling that legislators should be apportioned on a “one-person, one-vote” basis. This required state legislatures to reconstitute themselves entirely by the measure of population. Rural counties lost their state senators. Los Angeles and San Francisco swelled in power. The reconstituted California Senate of forty—coupled with the two-thirds-majority requirement to pass the budget—permits a faction of fourteen senators to shut down the state once a year, and that is precisely what happens.

Nor can you blame Brown, who served as governor from 1975 to 1983, for the economic earthquakes that began in the late ’70s, when defense and aerospace contracts started to slow (California had been getting one in every five Pentagon dollars during the cold war boom); by the late ’80s as many as 2 million well-paid blue-collar workers and their families had quit Southern California.

The gulag is a different matter. Governor Brown didn’t start the “lock ’em up forever” boom — but he hopped on to the moving train nimbly enough.

In 1977 the legislature passed a new sentencing law, which Brown swiftly signed. It amended the state’s penal code to declare that punishment, not rehabilitation, was now the goal. The law ended “indeterminate sentencing” — whereby convicts could win significantly shorter sentences by dint of good behavior, self-improvement as assessed by boards including guards and prisoners. Liberals thought this somewhat ad hoc procedure was inherently unfair. Enter, across ensuing years, mandatory completion of prison terms; shriveling of opportunities for convicts to improve themselves; virtual extinction of parole; and open-ended “civil commitment,” with endless extensions of prison time. The result was a swelling population of cons, many of them now entering senility and the Alzheimer years, many of them nonviolent offenders, crammed into tiny cells or using beds stacked three tiers high in prison gyms, all maintained decade after decade at staggering public expense.

Among them are those incarcerated for life under the state’s “three strikes” law, passed in 1994. In 2004 a state initiative to soften three strikes was set to pass handily until Brown, along with several other former California governors, did a last-minute ad blitz that reversed the poll numbers and defeated the proposition. Brown appears to have been the most enthusiastic participant; he flew to LA to do a series of ads with members of heavy metal groups, including Orgy.

Brown failed to fight the Prop 13 initiative effectively, though this prototypical Tea Party rebellion was probably unstoppable. When Prop 13 passed in 1978, the local governments that had already lost all power in the State Senate also lost any ability to raise money by increasing property taxes. Since then the only way to get dollars for education has been to go to Sacramento and beg or dream up another bond issue to place on the ballot. These bond issues can pass only with support from public employees—especially police, prison guards and firemen, uniting with teachers, nurses, etc.—and so the never-ending upward spiral of public employee salaries and pensions has no discernible limits.

By that time Brown had the damaging Governor Moonbeam label stuck on him by Mike Royko, though uncharacteristically this mean-spirited Chicago columnist later apologized, just like Green Party punk rocker Jello Biafra later said he was wrong to call Brown a Nazi. It’s hard to be absolute about Jerry, though his stint as mayor of Oakland had very unattractive features. His tilt at Clinton in ’92 was most enjoyable, not least for the fun I had with Andrew Kopkind interviewing Brown for The Nation and with Robert Pollin when we jointly defended Brown’s flat-tax proposal in the Wall Street Journal, bringing down the wrath of the liberal nonprofit tax reform groups, which ardently defended the so-called “progressivity” of our existing tax code! He’s actually endorsed the appalling Peripheral Canal.

California’s problems are well beyond the curative powers of any one governor. Brown’s slogan in the mid-’70s was “We are entering an era of limits” (always excepting the prison population and the share of the very rich in the national income). He got that one right.

John Burns’ Career of Infamy

From: Diana Johnstone

Date: October 28, 2010

Subject: John Burns’-master of the “pack interview”

John Burns of The New York Times wrote a smear piece on Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, designed to make him sound like a criminal loony.

This interview was attacked by Glenn Greenwald.

What people are forgetting is that some 18 years ago, when John Burns was covering the war in Bosnia, he interviewed a genuine criminal loony and swallowed every word. The loony was a Bosnian Serb named Borislav Herak, whose peculiarity was to confess to even many more crimes than he had ever committed — especially in prison in Sarajevo where he was beaten by Bosnian Muslim guards. For his interview with this prisoner, presented to him by Muslim authorities as a sample of “Serb bestiality,” Burns won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

A few years later, it emerged that at least two of the “Muslim victims” Herak confessed to murdering were alive and well, living in a Sarajevo suburb:

John Burns is a successful “pack” journalist — one who runs with the pack that unquestioningly sniffs out the story that will be rewarded by editors devoted to trashing whoever is on the Pentagon's hit list, whether it be the Bosnian Serbs, the Taliban (Pulitzer Prize number two) or Wikileaks.

The Pulitzer prize is to journalism what the Nobel Peace Prize has become to peace — a travesty serving the interests of the US war machine.

— Diana

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