Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lou Reed, Israel, and Backlash Politics

Some people on the left will always find something to complain about, and, in the case of Lou Reed, the recently deceased founder of the Velvet Underground, it is the support for Israel expressed in the song "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim." The specific lyrics are "Jesse you say common ground/ Does that include the P.L.O?/ What about people right here, right now/ Who fought for you not so long ago?" Jesse refers to Jesse Jackson, who had run for president in the Democratic primaries in 1984 and 1988, just before "New York," the album including "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim" was released (in other words, the song was not very timely, as the Democratic primaries had already run their course, and Jackson would never again play as prominent a role in American life). "the people.. who fought for you not so long ago" refers to Jews who participated in the civil rights movement, as Reed goes on to sing "remember those civil rights workers buried in the ground." The song ends on an even more condescending note: "And Jesse you're inside my thoughts/As the rhythmic words subside/My common ground invites you in/Or do you prefer to wait outside?"  It's a terrible song, and mostly reveals that Lou Reed should have stayed away from politics, which he did nearly his entire career. No point celebrating his engagement with a typical bunch of causes appealing to liberal artists, or his anti-American misanthropy (another standard liberal trope), as John Nichols does

Reed was distinguished by writing about the demimonde he encountered in New York in a decidely private, apolitical manner. Based on their lyrical content, you would be hard pressed to realize that the four great Velvet Underground records were produced during the largest upsurge of protest in the US since the thirties (although there is that reference to "all you protest kids" in "Sweet Jane"). I remember reading somewhere that the Velvets played once with that other great proto-punk band, the MC5, universally regarded as far more political, and were horrified when the MC5's lead singer encouraged the crowd to rip the club up in the spirit of "tear the system down." Reed apparently got out on stage and said he appreciated the club and its owner for letting them play. This story reflects well on Reed, in my opinion.

Notwithstanding that "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim" is something of an outlier in Reed's career, I find it strangely fascinating. It does capture something about the mood among Jewish liberals following the sixties. It is not only a question of supporting Israel. At least as important is that Israel provides the context for Reed to disdain Jesse Jackson, as does Louis Farrakhan, elsewhere in the song. The moral structure of the song is an unintentional travesty of the guilt tripping often ascribed to Jewish parents--after all I've done for you ("remember those civil rights workers..."), you go and do this (talk to Arafat). He seems puzzled and angry that Jesse won't follow HIS lead: "My common ground invites you in.."  There is another Reed song that references similar themes. In "I Wanna be Black," a parody of white hipster's racial aspirations, he declares that one of the things he could do if his race were different is "fuck up the Jews." Here again, African American perceptions of Jews are imagined as alienating and divisive (I suspect the reference here is to tensions epitomized by the antisemitic poem read on the radio during the Brownsville Ocean Hill teachers' strike).

The outlook Reed delineates here was shared by a generation of liberal Jews. Those who gravitated to the far left did not share it, but they were a small minority.  The bigger picture is something like this. In the fifties and sixties, Israel was seen as a good liberal cause among American Jews (and even many others on the left). It was not that a big a deal for wider American politics. Jewish life in Israel had socialist overtones--think of the Kibbutz. There was no significant challenge to this perspective within the United States. Jews then, as now, were heavily represented in the liberal professions (teachers, social workers, social scientists) and the worldview fostered fit well with the expansion of New Deal/Great Society programs.Liberal Jews also supported the civil rights movement. Jews know what is it like to be an oppressed minority. Jews simply wanted all the doors of American society to be open to everybody, so talent could thrive (the Jews most directly involved in the civil rights movement may have seen things differently, since they often had a far left background). Then, in 1967, Israel triumphed militarily over its neighbors. This heightened a nationalist identification with Israel among American Jews. Meanwhile, almost simultaneously, the world left turned decisively against Israel, and support for the cause of Palestine self determination became increasingly prominent. This alone was baffling for many American Jewish liberals, who had no idea why people might have problems with Israel. The explanation was to mash Yassir Arafat, Adolf Hitler, the Arab public, Third World leftists into a sort of ur Anti-Semitism that is continually reinvented (hence, Kurt Waldheim's inclusion in the song). Add to this the equation of the Soviet Union with anti-semitism, and we can begin to see how US power would be embraced as the last best hope for Jews in the world.  Domestically, liberalism was also in crisis. The aforementioned teachers' strike epitomized liberal Jews declining ability to play a role as a senior partner to African Americans. Riots were sometimes perceived as targeting Jewish businesses in African American neighborhoods. The growing crisis of urban America was often portrayed as one in which African Americans had betrayed their alliance with liberal Jews, although, really, liberal Jews didn't show as much sympathy for concerns more oriented towards self determination, political power and economic struggles that characterized the late sixties and seventies.

This is a forgotten element of the backlash politics of the seventies and eighties. It is far more widely discussed that corporate America organized itself to destroy union and government regulatory power, that whites in the South moved into the Republican column, that working class whites in the North feared competition from African Americans or school integration, and that evangelical christianity reawakened as a political force allied with right wing Republicans. But the crisis of liberalism--and Jews then (to some extent, still) were a disproportionate, even leading element of American liberals--is often forgotten. 

Today, these politics mostly seem like ancient history. The torch at Dissent has passed from the likes of Michael Walzer, who would probably agree with "Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim," to a younger generation, that, at a minimum, would be highly critical of Israel. It's been over ten years since Stephen Malkmus, an heir to Reed if ever there was one, sang "my Palestinian nephew got his face blown off in a dusty craft." As third world radicalism and Black nationalism have receded, so has paranoia over them. Given the greater prominence of Arab Americans, it's gotten a lot harder for college educated Americans, Jewish or not, to never learn how others see Israel.The turn to neoconservatism by some after 9-11 was less profound and intense than the earlier shift described above. The Nation still prints the rants of Eric Alterman, but they lack the heft of similar stuff written by Paul Berman in the 1980s. On the downside, neoliberal/neoconservative principles are now so entrenched in the US that it is not clear they require a living ideology to reproduce themselves.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Coming Crisis of the Democratic Party?

I had a recent exchange with a friend on Facebook. I suggested that if the left were to learn any lesson from the Tea Party, it is that capital's control of the major parties is more precarious than it seems, and that primaries can be used to challenge the rule of the centrists. Hence the left might want to explore Democratic primaries. My friend retorted that the Democratic Party is more insulated from democratic pressure than the Republicans, as a result of things like superdelegates. I suspect both I and my friend may have legitimate points, and I wonder how things will play out in the next ten years.

The last time there were major social movements on the left, in the late sixties,  there was eventual movement into electoral politics, culminating with the McGovern candidacy for president. Although he was less than ideal by left standards (so what else is new), McGovern epitomized the concerns of the movements. Above all I am referring to the peace movement, but the convention that nominated him, filled with a new generation including more African Americans and women, fed the perception that he was the candidate of the movements in general. Although he had an excellent voting record on labor issues, the unions (at this point still relatively powerful) basically abandoned him, and it may well have been the case that the union leadership was more or less in touch with the sentiment of their membership in doing so. McGovern lost in a landslide. The Democrats quickly created the superdelegates to frustrate any future prospect of nominating a candidate perceived as too far left for the American public. It is undoubtedly the case that some of the politicos responsible for this also didn't want a Democratic party too far left.

Although the creation of the superdelegates was a significant development, the trauma of the McGovern defeat was more significant as the Democrats drifted rightward. The super delegates played a significant role once, in nominating Walter Mondale rather than Gary Hart, as Gary Hart will remind anyone willing to listen. But I don't remember passions being all that high during the 1984 primaries in any case (or rather, the passion was among the minority who rallied behind Jesse Jackson), and Hart, likely as not, would have also lost to Reagan. All Democratic politicians who came of age in the seventies learned the same lesson from McGovern, and that lesson was to not tack too far to the left lest you offend the voting public. Even so, McGovern has been constantly invoked as the spectre haunting the party. Bill Clinton learned the lesson, and consolidated the Democrats move to the right.

Jump forward to the present. We appear to be on the cusp of a renewed era of social activism, epitomized to date by Occupy, rebellions at the state level (Wisconsin, North Carolina, Texas) and audacious working class action--Chicago Teachers, Fast Food and Walmart workers. A number of other movements--around education, climate change, anti-racism, and feminism, are either springing to life or reawakening. I suspect this will all probably deepen and intensify in the next few years, and economic justice will provide the fulcrum, much as anti-war and civil rights did in the sixties. Already it is having some electoral effects. Senator Elizabeth Warren is one example. Likely winner of the upcoming mayoral election in New York City, Bill de Blasio is another. Soon enough--in 2020, if not 2016--this spirit will turn into a presidential primary challenge. The Democratic party constituencies are being scrambled. Organized labor is weaker than ever, and many white workers continue to be peeled off by the Republicans. On the other hand, Occupy was the most dramatic moment to date in the refocusing of the energies of the college educated middle class on economic issues as opposed to the social cultural issues that have dominated the landscape for some time. The material basis for this is the growing anxiety over health insurance, student debt, and jobs.

Such a primary challenge would be infuriating to the centrists who dominate the party, and whose bread and butter is propitiating Wall Street. What if it looked like the challenger was going to be the likely nominee? Would they use super delegates to deny him or her victory? As noted above, the super delegates were only instituted after the McGovern debacle of 1972, when much of the young generation had begun their long march rightward. But in this hypothetical, an undemocratic mechanism would be invoked to block generational reorientation of the party.  This would clarify the authoritarian, exclusionary tendencies of the Democratic Party and the larger political system, but this has its risks, as it can radicalize those who are excluded. On the other hand, what if a populist candidate were let through? Undoubtedly the centrists would try to charm, buy off, or threaten the populist (already we are seeing this happen with de Blasio) and this might even work, but at the expense of infuriating the said populists' base.  And what if the populist won, and even tried to move forward on a program? What then? I suspect the center would work with the right through all possible avenues--the legislature, the judiciary, the media, etc--to frustrate and even topple the populist. I wonder if the Democratic Party could survive this scenario. At least since Bill Clinton (or even Jimmy Carter) the Democratic Party has pushed center-right policies while offering shelter to various social movements (feminism, civil rights, labor, etc) terrified of the right wing and its strength in the Republican Party. As the focus of popular anger turns towards economic policies, the centrists increasingly seem like the enemy. This is the contradiction the Democrats will struggle to contain.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Should the Left be Jealous of the Tea Party?

Several writers, notably Alex Gourevitch and Jodi Dean, seem to think so, since the Tea Party has proven capable of collective political action that makes an impact. My answer would be no. I am about as envious of the Tea Party as I am of the vicious resistance mounted to integration in the South or the terrorist attacks of September 11. Both made a real impact, but neither molded the political future. The Tea Party is fairly isolated among one demographic, albeit a powerful one, older white men, relatively well-to-do, although not for the most part the very wealthiest. Ideologically, it has isolated itself from the American public, which turned against the Republicans during the government shutdown. It's effort to basically use extortion and threats to stop the Affordable Care Act, precisely what the Republicans ran on and lost in 2012, bombed. They got nothing. Their main accomplishment, such as it is, was to demonstrate that they are presently powerful enough to throw a wrench into the working of the US government. They came pretty close to triggering a default on US debt, which I sensed that they welcomed. Notwithstanding the failure of this strategy, I believe their nihilism will sustain them. If they are losing the country (and they believe, with some justification, that they are), then they would just as soon destroy it. It is not obvious, within the constraints of the American political system, precisely how to stop them. The more corporate faction of the Republicans may start in earnest to push back and try to unseat them, but people on the left tend to underestimate the way the base of a party can express itself through primaries. Lots of Tea Partiers won in primaries where their rivals had more money.

Over the next ten years, the US political system will probably become more authoritarian as this congressional obstacle proves insurmountable. Congress does not have a good image, to say the least, although it is a far more democratic institution than the presidency or the supreme court. The "Common Core" educational standards provide a model for how this might work. Even without the Tea Party, it probably would not be possible to pass such a program. So its development was outsourced to David Coleman, it promotion was outsourced to Bill Gates, and centrist media has been relentless in promoting them as something any right thinking American concerned about the future will go along with. The big problem is that this leaves the centrist program with even less of a fig leaf of popular approval than when it is directly promoted by Bill Clinton, Barak Obama, Nancy Pelosi, etc. So opposition to this soft authoritarianism will provide one avenue for the left.

Second, the deterioration of the Republican Party as a coherent, disciplined vehicle means that the left can sometimes stop bad things by de facto alliances with the Tea Party. This is what slowed the war drive to Syria, and it is also what tanked Larry Summers appointment to the Federal Reserve. Had Obama been able to count on the centrist Republicans whipping the party in line, both probably would move forward. I suspect this will also undermine any near-future "grand bargain," as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, although in both cases the intransigence of the Tea Partiers alone might do the trick (Obama's cancellation of his trip to the Pacific to deal with the shutdown didn't help claims that the US would lead the region in the future).

Finally, the crumbling of the right into this isolated, dysfunctional mess, rather than inspiring envy, should embolden the left. They don't want this country, increasingly consisting of non-whites, and longing for government solutions to their problems? Fine, we will take it. Taking it will require both a careful accounting of where we are at and the challenges of actually trying to enact progressive change (something missing in both Dean and Gorevitch's posts), and a serious investigation as to how the left should act in the case that the US state breaks down under the weight of Tea Party style battering. The latter may come sooner than expected.