Monday, March 22, 2010

John L. Lewis

        John L. Lewis, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is one of the great figures in American political history. In many protests and freedom rides, he was arrested and beaten – nearly murdered – for standing up for all of us as human beings. He has long been a Congressman and leader of the Black Caucus, but during the long dark age of Reaganism, not so much in the spotlight. But the tides of history washed over him again this weekend in an ugly way.

        He, James Clymer, another civil rights marcher from the 60s and Emmanuel Cleaver were all attacked, Cleaver spat on, as they walked into the House of Representatives. These racists – er tea-baggers, er "tea-partiers" (the Boston Tea Party could not be furthered removed from these bigots) - were fomented by the medical insurance companies, the Chamber of Commerce, Fox “News” and the Republican Party. Barney Frank was subjected to homophobic slurs. Of this racism and homophobia, Republicans said it is a response to “Obama’s totalitarianism.”

         Well, there is no such thing. The health care triumph was to cover 31 million people and eliminate people including children being denied insurance for “preexisting conditions” (acne as a teenager and cancer; it you are a living being, you generate illness). The bill makes the perverse, so-called insurance system actually one of insurance rather than murder. Delaying coverage resulting in the preventable death of the ill for profit – some 44, 000 last year according to a recent Harvard study. Aiming to do better than 36th in the world (tied with Hong Kong in health care results), the United States – at best a semi-civilized empire – will now catch up with the back of Europe and other countries which practice universal health care.

          Lewis suggested and Nancy Pelosi, also a hero of the story facing down the pathetic Rahm Emanuel and his scaled down health care plan – a “kiddie care” proposal, she sarcastically named it - led a march of all the Democratic House members, through the racist demonstrators outside who had been egged on by the Republicans.    Lewis had learned from freedom rides – having taken the place of those beaten to continue the journey and himself been beaten – that one must not back down in the face of racist intimidation. The only difference, he said, was that this time the police protected the marchers.  Even the Times had a picture of the Democrats marching, Lewis beside Pelosi, on the front page today, though to say what the photo meant was beyond the Times’s “reporting.”

            As a leader of SNCC, Lewis gave the Democrats spine. They stood up to pass the health bill – to do what is right as Obama said Saturday – proudly, even ecstatically (a report on Steny Hoyer’s mood as the bill neared passage).

            In contrast, the Republicans are a lawless, authoritarian and racist party. Michael Steele, the nearly lone black and chairperson, did say that neither party supports racism, but of course he was wrong about the Republicans who have lived on racism and homophobia in electoral politics for a long time. They are the party of torture, executive power, and stirring right-wing anger to lynch opponents (think Glenn Beck). These are genuine elements of fascism. That the Democrats have entered into a bipartisan endorsing of some elements of executive power under Obama is tragic for the rule of law, as I have emphasized. But there was something more important in standing up than the health care bill itself. Lewis helped remind the country of the journey to elect a biracial President. He stood up and Democrats stood up for decency in America – that America is not the country where racism is as ingredient as cherry pie (in the words of later SNCC leader H. Rap Brown), but a democracy that miraculously elected a black President. This is an America home of the Bill of Rights, not the plaything of demented Cheneys.

           The triumph of health care probably puts Obama on the road to a major Presidency. It will be a centrist Presidency. He is trying to do something decent in oligarchic American politics and out of courage and determination, he is succeeding. As a side benefit once again, the reconciliation also chases the banks out of the student loan “business.” In health care and education, this is an important beginning.

          Obama’s imperial wars may bring him down (Afghanistan is a good bet) and even more likely, his failure to deal deeply with the depression (that there are still 9.7% official - in real terms, 17.2% -- unemployed hangs over the Democrats, a demonstration that they are a pro-banker party even to potential suicide. They could have done something about it (Obama did push the Senate as far as it would go). But they did do something about the disgrace of alienated anti-health care – its “anti-Americanism” or better, anti-democracy or anti-humanism (the ideology of anti-radicalism or anti-Americanism has always been used against people fighting for decency from below).

          Obama came through on health, among other reasons, for his mother who lay dying of cancer in a hospital while the medical insurance companies phoned her hourly for their “pound of flesh.” Barack, who didn’t then have the money to pay, had to watch his mother die under these circumstances. It is no wonder that he fixed on a health care plan that would and does heal this. His heart was in this bill.

           Bush, it is said, made war on Saddam to show up his father. Psychological motives in that case have something to do with his foolishness (except for liking to shoot guns and kill innocent people, who can say what moves W.?). But in Obama’s case, it was a promise to decency that he swore on his mother’s deathbed and delivered on as President.

            A front page article in the New York Times by David Sanger here reveals the paper’s shallowness and corruption. This was an “historic achievement” –an achievement for decency- and – squeakingly - “political suicide.” Good to know that silly Republican mantras – Obama pointed out Saturday that one’s political opponents rarely advise for one’s own good - escapes this “reporter” who mouths Gingrinch political slogans. He ends by commenting on Lyndon Johnson saying, recalling the 1930s fight, that no one would oppose social security in 1965. No, Sanger editorializes, we must change the system or go broke. Bush heroically, he implies, tried and lost.

            Sanger and his editor are silly in three ways. The first is that what will sink Obama and the Democrats is high unemployment (9.7%, 17. 2 in real terms, and not going down, so testified Tim Geithner last week). What will sink Obama and the Democrats is waging five wars of aggression (though if he stands up to Netanyahu and produces a two state solution, he may survive even this). So the idea that the racist, anti-radical (the President is “other,” “totalitarian” “Nazi-commie”) Republican campaign for “no” to decency, backed by the Times who renames racist tea-baggers for the Boston tea party, by itself does damage to the Democrats is false. If they lose, it will not be for having done something honorable.

             Second, social security is American decency and the proposal to privatize it – you would think Sanger might have noticed the crash, but facts and New York Times’ reporting often go separate ways – would have bankrupted the elderly poor even before medical bills under the current system and more surely than Enron. Worse yet, Sanger does not know that the government has spent a social security surplus every year on war. This was one of Perot’s true points long ago. There is bipartisan cooperation of Democrats and Republicans in making the US a war or war-complex state. It is the demonic suction pump referred to by Martin Luther King, that sucks out money for the poor, for jobs, for medical care, for education to spend wantonly on aggression. A nation that spends more of war than on measures of social welfare, King suggested on April 4, 1967, is approaching spiritual death.

           He was right then, and it is worse now. Militarism when we are broke, spending 1000 times the amount on a Xe mercenary in Afghanistan (the company in Avatar is the American occupying army) than for  a k-12 child in California, see here – is draining the resources of what was once the most productive and richest nation in the world.

            And yet, Obama has been elected and the Congress just passed a decent health care bill and education reform. Now, social security and medical care and education for everyone could easily be paid for out of working people’s taxes – as it is in Europe at higher tax rates – if the United States were not poisoned by its militarism and the two party system did not produce a steady movement over time toward racist and imperial authoritarianism (the reactionary two step of ordinary two party competition, so long as it is unmoved by pressure from below). Militarism, repression, racism, said Martin King. It would be good to remember.

             Third, if people like a modest degree of political courage, they will respond to the Democrats, as opposed to the racist authoritarians in the next election. We need a radical movement from below to push things to the left (hard to gather when Obama is President). The need for it is day by day more glaring. There are many things that cannot be done without it.

             But John L. Lewis is the real thing. If you want to see courage, watch the first segments of Eyes on the Prize. As a leader of SNCC, he pulled the Democrats onto their feet and together. Both in the radical movement and in mainstream politics, what he stands for is impressive.

SATURDAY, MAR 20, 2010 16:21 EDT
Too much tea party racism
As protesters call Dem leaders "nigger" and "faggot," it's time for Republicans to denounce them.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Protestors hold signs during a 'Kill the Bill' rally against President Barack Obama's health care legislation, on the west front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, March 20, 2010.
When the tea party movement began last year I saw it as right-wing reaction, but given the economic turmoil across the country, I tried to understand it. Maybe there was populism within the movement that the left needed to recognize. I attended a local tea party last April 15, tax day, and while I didn't find folks whose minds seemed mutable by liberal populism, at least it seemed possible to have a conversation. I wrote about a former banker and a Democrat who made common cause with some of the protesters around the bank bailout and Goldman Sachs's overall influence on government. She had some good conversations. I saw closed minds, but I didn't see violence or overt racism. Of course I was in San Francisco, so it probably wasn't representative of the tea party movement, but I still think the effort to understand the economic anxiety that's part of what's motivating the tea partiers was worth my time.
A year later, though, it's worth more of my time to say what many resist: The tea party movement is disturbingly racist and reactionary, from its roots to its highest branches. On Saturday, as a small group of protesters jammed the Capitol and the streets around it, the movement's origins in white resistance to the Civil Rights Movement was impossible to ignore. Here's only what the mainstream media is reporting, ignoring what I'm seeing on Twitter and left wing blogs:

1. Civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis was taunted by tea partiers who chanted "nigger" at least 15 times, according to the Associated Press (we are not cleaning up language and using "the N-word" here because it's really important to understand what was said.) First reported on The Hill blog (no hotbed of left-wing fervor), the stories of Lewis being called "nigger" were confirmed by Lewis spokeswoman Brenda Jones and Democratic Rep. Andre Carson, who was walking with Lewis. "It was like going into the time machine with John Lewis," said Carson, a former police officer. "He said it reminded him of another time."

2. Another Congressional Black Caucus leader, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, was spat upon by protesters. The culprit was arrested, but Cleaver declined to press charges.

3. House Majority Whip James Clybourn told reporters: "I heard people saying things today that I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to try to get off the back of the bus."

4. There were many reports that Rep. Barney Frank was called a "faggot" by protesters, but the one I saw personally was by CNN's Dana Bash, who seemed rattled by the tea party fury. Frank told AP: "It's a mob mentality that doesn't work politically."

5. Meanwhile, a brick came through the window at Rep. Louise Slaughter's Niagara Falls office on Saturday (the day she argued for her "Slaughter solution" to pass health care reform, though it was rejected by other Democrats on the House Rules Committee).

On Thursday MSNBC's "Hardball" host Chris Matthews grilled tea party Astroturf leader Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity about supporters who taunted a man with Parkinson's disease at a tea party gathering in Ohio last week. Phillips insisted the bullies just didn't represent the tea party movement. But such demurrals don't cut it any more. At the Nashville tea party gathering last month, a proponent of the kinder, gentler tea party movement, Judson Phillips, tried to distance himself from crazed and racist elements – but later endorsed racist speaker Tom Tancredo even after he told the convention: "People who could not even spell the word 'vote', or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. His name is Barack Hussein Obama." Tancredo blamed Obama's election on the fact that "we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country." He got some of the loudest cheers of the weekend.

So I'm having a hard time tonight trying to believe almost uniformly white tea partiers are anything other than a racist, right-wing reaction to the election of an African American president who brings with him feminists and gays (even if he doesn't do as much for them as they would ideally like). I'm having a hard time seeing the tea partiers as anything other than the spawn of George Wallace racism – the movement Pat Buchanan bragged to me that Richard Nixon made his own. Of course, in that same "Hardball" segment, Buchanan denounced me for condescending to and "demonizing" the tea partiers. I still find that rich: I grew up in lower middle class Long Island, with a first-generation Irish father, going to public schools and universities, while the wealthy Buchanan grew up in Washington D.C. with professionals as parents and attended Georgetown University. How is he the supposed working class troubadour while I'm somehow emblematic of the pointy-headed liberal elite?
Democrats are lame about fighting stupid class-based slurs like that, which is part of why this health care fight has dragged on and become so bitter. But I think a lot of Democrats were horrified by the ugliness they saw today, and I'm hoping that helps pass health care reform on Sunday.

I'm going to close with statements issued by the offices of Emanuel Cleaver and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (no firebrand lefty, by the way), which I found on the New York Times: Cleaver (who didn't press charges against the loser who spit at him) is first:
For many of the members of the CBC, like John Lewis and Emanuel Cleaver who worked in the civil rights movement, and for Mr. Frank who has struggled in the cause of equality, this is not the first time they have been spit on during turbulent times.
This afternoon, the Congressman was walking into the Capitol to vote, when one protester spat on him. The Congressman would like to thank the US Capitol Police officer who quickly escorted the other Members and him into the Capitol, and defused the tense situation with professionalism and care. After all the Members were safe, a full report was taken and the matter was handled by the US Capitol Police. The man who spat on the Congressman was arrested, but the Congressman has chosen not to press charges. He has left the matter with the Capitol Police.

This is not the first time the Congressman has been called the “n” word and certainly not the worst assault he has endured in his years fighting for equal rights for all Americans. That being said, he is disappointed that in the 21st century our national discourse has devolved to the point of name calling and spitting. He looks forward to taking a historic vote on health care reform legislation tomorrow, for the residents of the Fifth District of Missouri and for all Americans. He believes deeply that tomorrow’s vote is, in fact, a vote for equality and to secure health care as a right for all. Our nation has a history of struggling each time we expand rights. Today’s protests are no different, but the Congressman believes this is worth fighting for.
Hoyer here:

Today’s protests against health insurance reform saw a rash of despicable, inflammatory behavior, much of it directed at minority Members of Congress. According to reports, anti-reform protestors spat on Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, yelled a sexual slur at Rep. Barney Frank, and addressed my dear friend, Rep. John Lewis, with a racial slur that he has sadly heard far too many times. On the one hand, I am saddened that America’s debate on health care — which could have been a national conversation of substance and respect — has degenerated to the point of such anger and incivility. But on the other, I know that every step toward a more just America has aroused similar hate in its own time; and I know that John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, has learned to wear the worst slurs as a badge of honor.
America always has room for open and spirited debate, and the hateful actions of some should not cast doubt on the good motives of the majority, on both sides of this argument. But Members of Congress and opinion leaders ought to come to terms with their responsibility for inciting the tone and actions we saw today. A debate that began with false fears of forced euthanasia has ended in a truly ugly scene. It is incumbent on all of us to do better next time.

UPDATE: Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., the No. 3 GOP leader, denounced tea party racism on Sunday. Mike Madden reports:
Asked about the racist and homophobic shouts from the crowd at Democrats Saturday, he was pretty blunt. "I crossed the bridge in Selma with [civil rights leader and Democratic Rep.] John Lewis a couple weeks ago," Pence said. "I denounce, in the strongest possible terms, the kind of language and statements that have been reported." But he said the GOP wasn't responsible for inciting the anti-government movement to the frenzy that it's reached. "I think we've reached a tipping point here," he said. "I think the American people are rising up with one voice and saying, 'Enough is enough.'"

It's nice that Pence isn't endorsing the shouts of "nigger" John Lewis heard Saturday. But he continues to blame the anti-government frenzy on Obama and the Democrats and ignore the role of GOP racism. Shortly after Pence's remarks, his colleague Geoff Davis (great name!) of Kentucky actually hung a tea partier's "Don't Tread On Me" sign over the Capitol Balcony. You'll all remember Davis as the guy who referred to Obama as "that boy." On Sunday Davis insisted the tea partiers are merely expressing "their fear of their own government" (now that it's led by "that boy"?) No racism there, none at all.

Oh, and Barney Frank was called a "faggot" again. Frank later demanded that his GOP colleagues stop applauding the tea partiers who were heckling House Democrats. "That's why you get this kind of virulence and hatred," Frank said, according to the Huffington Post. If Pence and other GOP leaders wanted to stop the hate, they'd stop encouraging the vicious rowdies who are behind it.

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