Rightward and downward: “What’s Left?” December 2018, MRR #427

My wife, my friends, everybody I know is pissed that I’m not more pissed off about that horrible, horrible man Donald Trump. That I seem pretty sanguine about the hurricane of political, social, and human destruction Trump and the GOP have wrought in such a short period of time or the damage they will continue to inflict for decades to come through, for instance, the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. So, why am I not more freaked out about Trump?

The answer is that, in my lifetime, I’ve seen this nation’s relatively liberal politics go consistently downhill and rightward to the present. I first became aware of American politics writ large when I was 8 years old, when John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. My parents had been Democrats and Adlai Stevenson supporters, so my frame of reference started from a liberal “Golden Age,” the “one brief shining moment” that was the myth of JFK and Camelot. But unlike many people who believe the fifty-eight years that followed have witnessed ups and downs, good times and bad, pendulum swings left and right, and are therefore upset, desperate, and obsessed with the rise of Trump, I see those years all of a piece, a steady right wing devolution as we go straight to hell in a handbasket. Continue reading

Analog radio politics: “What’s Left?” January 2015, MRR #380

I started listening to the radio to fall asleep at night when my parents moved back to southern California. I was a teenager in the ‘60s, living in Ventura, California. At first I listened to commercial AM radio; Top 40 and pop crooners. My parents’ radio stations. Then I discovered the Mighty 1090, XERB, out of Tijuana with Wolfman Jack, a growling, gravely-voiced disc jockey who specialized in “race music” that was quickly transforming into rock music. He played both black rhythm and blues and the white pop versions, Elvis-inspired rockabilly, doo wop, and the beginnings of rock’n’roll way past midnight. XERB was Mexican border blaster radio powerful enough to be heard well into Canada.

Those were the days of analog radio, when you could fine tune the dial with the slightest touch to catch radio stations that were too distant, interstitial, or so weak you could only find them late at night. FM radio was in its infancy, and often so low-powered that its line-of-sight signal meant that LA stations and their broadcasts were largely confined to that smog-choked metropolis. Early FM radio in LA was news-based or education-oriented or ghettoized into specific musical niches, like classical or jazz.

KMET started transmitting in 1968 at 94.7 as one of the first “underground” FM rock music stations, freeform, and relatively commercial free. Known as The Mighty Met, I only got its signal after 10 or so in the evening, when atmospheric conditions allowed it to bounce off the ionosphere and reach beyond the LA basin. Rock’n’roll was the soundtrack to my involvement with the New Left and hippie counterculture, and KMET allowed me to discover music that never got any airplay, commercial or otherwise. I remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck when I first heard the intro storm-and-bells to Black Sabbath’s first album in 1970, which was then played over the air in full. And then there was the utter wackiness of the Dr. Demento show.

The wide open free-wheeling nature of FM radio rapidly evaporated during the ‘70s. Commercial advertising was less prominent on the FM airwaves, corporate sponsorship of FM stations and networks was more low key, and the listener/community supported model of Pacifica and NPR was going strong. But true underground radio was essentially dead by 1975. Eventually, FM radio became more popular and commercial than AM radio, marginalizing the AM band to talk radio, news and sports broadcasting, and religious and ethnic programming. So let’s turn to one of the metaphors generated by the FM radio experience. When Pacifica-affiliated KPFA (94.1) in Berkeley or NPR-associated KQED (88.5) in San Francisco conduct pledge drives, they often allude to the fact that their call numbers are on the left-hand side of the radio dial, implying that they are politically to the left as well. This coincidence also holds for music, with both KMET and the original KSAN (94.9) in San Francisco, not to mention the many Bay Area college radio stations, residing to the left of the dial. I’m told that this is a happenstance of FCC allocation, nothing more. And I’m not interested in making the left-right nature of the radio dial into an analogy for some overly simplistic left-right political spectrum in this country. Instead, consider that the 88-108 MHz portion of the FM radio spectrum represents the full range of political discussion and debate in the United States. My subject this column is how different forces in our society fight over dialing politics either more to the right or further to the left.

FDR’s New Deal was at the center of the dial at the end of the second World War, but working people in this country had dialed politics significantly to the left by 1945, after over fifteen years of grueling class struggle waged in the midst of economic depression and then world war. Fascism had been soundly defeated and the Soviet Union was widely praised, some 35% of the American working class was unionized and more were organizing, industrial actions and nation-wide strikes were regular occurrences, and talk of socialism and calls for revolution were commonplace. The capitalist ruling class was in fear for its power and position, so a concerted effort was launched by the bourgeoisie to dial things back to the right. The Truman administration initiated a concerted anti-Soviet, anti-communist campaign that climaxed with McCarthyism’s purges during the Eisenhower era. The results were a 1950s marked by conformity and conservatism, Cold War and capitalist consumerism, as political discussion and debate shifted markedly to the right.

The decade from 1965 to 1975, known as the 60s, witnessed a political and cultural explosion that reset the dial to the left once again. The Civil Rights movement, the New Left, and the counterculture led, while JFK’s liberalism and LBJ’s Great Society followed. However, with the demise of Nixon, America’s last liberal president, the capitalist ruling class regained the ascendency. For the past forty-odd years it’s been dialing things back to the right, dismantling the welfare state, exploiting the collapse of Soviet communism, and deconstructing liberalism into neo-liberalism. The so-called Reagan revolution went so far as to threaten to demolish the New Deal altogether. When it comes to the Democrats, Carter dialed it to the right of JFK/LBJ, Clinton dialed it to the right of Carter, and Obama dialed it to the right of Clinton. That’s where we’re at today, the 2014 election hiccup notwithstanding.

Now, personally, I think that American politics lurched a little too far to the right in 2014, and that moderation will prevail once more in 2016. But it’s important to realize that this supposed moderation is actually solidly right wing when compared to the ‘60s, let alone the ‘40s. The political discussion and debate in this country has shifted, and continues to shift, to the right, thanks to the power and influence of the bourgeoisie. Returning to the radio analogy, where we once listened to Hank Williams Sr and country western music, we’re now tuned into Brad Paisley and fatuous country rock. Where we once grooved to John Coltrane and bebop, we now enjoy Winton Marsalis and vapid cool jazz. Where we once got high on Jimi Hendrix and rock’n’roll, we’re now buzzed by Yngwie Malmsteen and heavy metal noodling. And where we once thrashed to Black Flag and hardcore punk, we now politely consume Green Day and vacuous pop punk musicals. A sad state of affairs, indeed.

Conservative book ends: “What’s Left?” November 2010, MRR #330

I recently noticed that my life seems to be book ended. That’s not a pleasant revelation. For one, it means I’m approaching the end of it. My life, that is. I’m pushing 60, and the fact that the beginning and ending to my life are coming to resemble each other is overshadowed by the realization that “[s]eventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; Most of them are sorrow and toil; they pass quickly, we are all but gone.” (Psalm 90:10)

Sorry to get all Biblical on your ass. It was the mythology I was raised on, and I seem to be returning to it in my dotage. I told you this wasn’t pleasant. Equally unpleasant is the content to the alpha and omega of my life.

I grew up in Eisenhower’s America. Conservative, God-fearing, patriotic to the point of McCarthyite/HUAC witch-hunts. I experienced the rise of political liberalism—in Kennedy’s election and Johnson’s augmentation of the welfare state via the Great Society—as relatively progressive, paralleling as it did the racial and social liberalization of American society. Today, however, liberalism in every form is in full retreat. And conservatism is triumphant, marked by a resurgence of God, country and witch-hunts.

In the 1960s, the John Birch Society expressed the conspiratorial fringe of American conservatism. Everything from water fluoridation to the United Nations was considered part and parcel of the international Communist conspiracy to destroy America. Even President Eisenhower was declared a willing tool of the Communists. Yet the John Birch Society did break with those conspiracy-mongers on the right who posited that Jews, blacks, Catholics, Masons, et al were behind some vast anti-American conspiracy by accepting individuals from such groups into their membership. Today, the great purveyor of wingnut conspiracy theories, with his chalkboard flowcharts of hidden influence and money, is Fox News commentator Glenn Beck. Progressives and their secret socialist agendas are plotting to destroy this country according to Beck. And, like the John Birch Society, Glenn Beck is cited for liberating the realm of conspiracy theory from its anti-Semitic, racist, anti-Masonic, and ultra-Protestant promoters.

The final capstone to this tale of “forward into the past” is that the recent census is predicted to show that poverty in this country has risen to levels not seen since 1965.

I often lament that the political, social, and cultural movements of 60s and 70s didn’t revolutionize this country, or the world, sufficiently to make a revival of the right impossible. My personal investment in that bygone era motivates me to figure out why that was the case. A while back, I spent a whole column discussing Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s brilliant opinion piece, entitled “It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” in the 9/5/08 Guardian Weekly. Wheatcroft dismisses the tired trope that “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally,” and then proceeds to systematically debunk various other myths born of 1968. His conclusion? That the 1960s cultural upheavals were profoundly individualistic, even libertine, and that “since 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.”

Recently, I read Keith Abbott’s poignant memoir of Richard Brautigan, Downstream From Trout Fishing In America, in which he comments: “One thing that tends to be overlooked about the hippie scene was it was pro-American, but with a distinctly western vision of America, one where individualism and delight in all the senses demanded an anarchistic freedom for their personal lives. Most important, this western vision issued the refugees of the Haight a license to start their lives over. This notion concealed an innate right-wing bias too, one which emerged later in the various communes and their ingrown sexism and fascism.” The argument has been made that the political New Left was significantly different from the profoundly apolitical hippie counterculture of the 1960s. Yet apparently both shared a commitment to an intense, American-style individualism that made a recoup by the right not merely possible, but inevitable.

The anarchic and anarchistic aspects to the Western youth revolts of the period were paralleled by anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, as well as by the social democratic and Leninist political movements that supported those struggles. Wheatcroft’s and Abbott’s critiques hardly explain the devolution of Western Communism into EuroCommunism or Social Democracy into neoliberalism, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, or the transformation of Third World national liberation into national capitalism. We’re talking here about a retreat of the 60s across the board before global capitalism. I think the seeds to the rise of the right can be found in all of those 60s struggles and movements that a triumphant right now so vehemently denounces. Yet accounting for the failures of those struggles and movements will be more complex than simply blaming individualism and libertinism.

Nostalgia for the 60s: “What’s Left?” September 2008, MRR #304

I was having flashbacks.

I laid out the columns for MRR #302 at the end of May. As I sat in front of a computer in the Mother Ship—MRR HQ—the soundtrack playing was ‘60s rock’n’roll, protopunk, garage, psychedelia, whatever you want to call it. The Seeds, 13th Floor Elevators, Them, on vinyl of course. Yet, other than myself, no one listening had been born when that music was first produced.

Intellectually, I understand the impact that Sky Saxon, Roky Erickson, Van Morrison and their break-out bands had on the music that followed, up to the present day. Emotionally, however, I was asking myself, why the hell does anybody listen to this crap? That’s because the music threatened to invoke nostalgia. I’m no fan of nostalgia, even on the best of days.

For me, nostalgia is pitiable emotion conjured up by less than accurate memory. I’m particularly repelled by nostalgia for the “good old days” of the 1960s because, in my opinion having lived through the decade, very little was changed by the unrest and ferment of those years. Recently, I listened to a Brecht Forum panel discussion on Obama and the Left put on by the Nation Magazine and broadcast on NPR. I couldn’t help shaking my head, and chuckling out loud. For all our pipe dreams of revolution and overthrowing the Establishment in the ‘60s, in America today the Left is a joke. I recognize that we were delusional at the time, but it still makes me sad, and not a little angry, to realize how pathetically insignificant the Left, not to mention the left of the Left, is at present. And how out-and-out reactionary this society remains.

Which is weird because conservatives in this country believe exactly the opposite, that the Left won what they call the Culture Wars of the 1960s. For them, the remnants of LBJ’s Great Society welfare state and the much curtailed countercultural hedonism of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are signs that the Antichrist triumphed some forty years ago, which conservatives have been assiduously fighting to overturn ever since. The Right has successfully used affirmative action, feminism, liberal media, abortion, gay rights, school prayer, et al, to distract people from the reality that corporate capitalism is fast reducing the United States to a Third World banana republic.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft summarized popular attitudes to that contentious decade in a Guardian Weekly opinion piece (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” 9/5/08) when he wrote:

[André Glucksmann] now sees les événements de mai as “a monument, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury,” which is one way of putting it. Another is that 40 years ago were sown the seeds of the story since, when “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally.” Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but not for long.

Wheatcroft proceeds to systematically demolish the myths of 1968, beginning by comparing Paris 1968 to Europe in 1848, using the analogy of sexual orgasm followed by post-coital depression. “Even at the time, as Paris was brought to a halt by rebellious kids, there was an awful lot of play-acting.” He quotes the French Communist Party’s analysis of those events as “street party, not revolution,” and favorably mentions AJP Taylor’s comment about 1848: “it’s a sure sign of political backwardness when any movement is led by students.”

The list of ‘60s veterans who have become part of the establishment, even right-wingers, is disheartening, and not at all “amusing, if unkind” as Wheatcroft puts it. But he is particularly cogent when he discusses the political consequences of 1968:

The copains believed they would bring down Charles de Gaulle, but they didn’t. When he did resign the next year, he was succeeded by Georges Pompidou, and the Elysée palace has been occupied by the right for 26 of the past 40 years. Likewise, British youths jeered at Harold Wilson, who was duly replaced two years later by Edward Heath, and the Tories were in power for 22 of the next 27 years.

Across the Atlantic, 1968 saw assassination, riot and antiwar protest; the year ended with Richard Nixon’s election, and Republicans have been in the White House for 28 of the 40 years since. It’s true that the US eventually left Vietnam; that country now has an explosive capitalist economy—not quite what those who chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, We will fight and we will win!” had in mind.

Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the collapse of Soviet Bloc Communism heralded the political and economic victory of the Right, as foreshadowed in 1968. Yet, with respect to the cultural (“or emotional or sexual”) victory of the Left, Wheatcroft contends that “even there, the story is ambiguous.” For, as he points out, the 1960s cultural upheavals were profoundly individualistic, even libertine, and that “since 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” I consider myself a proxy soixante-huitard, yet I heartily agree with Wheatcroft’s rather bleak assessment of the legacy of 1968. I’m even inclined to second Eric Hobsbawm’s comment that “the revolution is puritan,” by which “[h]e meant that the sex-drugs-and-rock hedonism of the 1960s was not only not the same thing as changing the foundations of society, it might be actively inimical to doing so.”

Damn, I’m getting old.

This analysis doesn’t take into account that the rebellions of the 1960s had two disparate sources; the hippie counterculture and the student New Left. Hippies were often proudly anti-political, whereas New Leftists frequently dismissed the counterculture as escapist. Wheatcroft is essentially saying that while the counterculture nominally won, the New Left was resoundingly defeated. Another way to look at this period is to see both counterculture and New Left going down to defeat, with the ruling elite of the day then selectively recuperating elements from each camp in order to stave off future rebellion. Had these two aspects of the ‘60s truly triumphed to any degree, we might have seen a creative fusion that could have shaped a stunningly libertarian socialism to shame Stalin’s gulags and Mao’s reeducation camps. But this is the stuff of science fiction and alternative history, not of thoughtful analysis.

As I write this column the San Francisco Mime Troupe begins a new season of free theater in the city’s parks. The current production, called “Red State,” has as one of its themes that the US economy is becoming so bad that the Right can no longer bamboozle the American public with social and moral issues. The sleight-of-hand trickery that stirred up people with the red flags of gay marriage, teenage abortion, reverse discrimination against whites, and welfare mothers on crack so that they voted, and acted, against their economic interests, is no longer working. Economic issues are once more coming to the fore, and overshadowing the rabidly repressive social agenda of the conservative movement. We should comprehend and encourage this potential, instead of futilely pining for the “good old days” of the ‘60s.

Goldwater Reconsidered: “What’s Left?” February 2007, MRR #285

It’s one of the most famous television commercials in history. Called the “Daisy Girl” ad, it opens with a little girl in a sun-drenched field, picking the petals off a daisy. As she counts the petals, the voice over segues into a launch countdown. The girl fades into a nuclear explosion, and the ad ends with a pitch to vote for Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The Daisy Girl ad was instrumental in defeating Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential elections. Johnson portrayed Goldwater as a dangerous extremist, and used Goldwater’s support for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam to put the fear of global nuclear holocaust into the American electorate. Johnson won a landslide victory, and Goldwater’s faction of the Republican Party was thoroughly crushed.

Goldwater’s was the conservative wing of the GOP. Conservative on all counts. His was the original small government, free market, anti-communist, isolationist conservatism we associate today with paleoconservatives like Patrick Buchanan. Goldwater sought to roll back both the New Deal and federal involvement in the civil rights movement which ended legal segregation, guaranteed blacks the right to vote, and attempted to halt racial discrimination in housing, education, and employment. Goldwater’s free market economics was trumped by a patriotic nationalism that sought to protect American industry from unfair foreign competition, much as his isolationist, anti-interventionist foreign policy was trumped by a virulent anticommunism that sought to forcibly role back the Soviet bloc, with nuclear weapons if necessary.

In the 1964 primaries, Goldwater’s Republican faction trounced the GOP’s other major faction, the liberal wing led by Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller’s Republicans basically accepted the New Deal, government economic intervention, the welfare state, and federal support for civil rights, though perhaps not as fervently as the New Deal liberal wing of the Democratic Party led by Johnson. The Democratic Party also had a second main wing, a conservative faction, a gaggle of pro-segregation, populist, states rights southern Democrats led by George Wallace. All four groups were anti-communist, of course, with the Republican Party more zealously so.

[The claim that the United States is a democracy with two distinct political parties can be challenged on the basis of this political line-up alone. Despite American politics having moved decidedly to the right since 1964, one would be hard pressed today to separate out two ideologically distinct political parties based on the likes of Junior Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and Zell Miller, each politician representative of a major political tendency in their respective political parties.]

The GOP’s liberal wing gained ascendancy after Goldwater’s defeat, contributing to Richard Nixon’s presidential victory in 1968. And, given the rightward shift in US politics over the last three decades, it’s accurate to describe Nixon as America’s last liberal president. He continued to push through civil rights legislation, ignobly ended the Vietnam War, recognized Red China, and implemented wage-and-price controls to combat economic stagflation, all of which were anathema to the Republican Party’s conservative faction. Decimated by Goldwater’s rout, GOP conservatives made a crucial strategic decision to return to their base-churches, communities, civic organizations-and rebuild their power, with the goal of eventually retaking the leadership of their party.

School boards were often the first steppingstone for these conservatives in retaking the Republican Party, followed by municipal and state governments. Formulating an ideological and programmatic consistency-admirably accomplished by the New Right and evangelical Christianity-was also critical, as was establishing effective party discipline. Moderate and liberal Republicans were labeled RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), attacked by conservative Republicans as vehemently as Democrats, subjected to political dirty tricks during Republican primaries, denied funding and support from party institutions, and shorn of power and influence once in office. In addition, Southern Democrats, long disenchanted with their party for its championing of desegregation, civil rights, and affirmative action, and denied a third-party alternative with the defeat of George Wallace’s American Independent Party, deserted the Democratic Party in droves to become conservative Republicans. The conservative wing of the GOP first tasted national victory with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, thanks in part to support from working-class “Reagan Democrats.” Conservatism’s triumphant comeback was sealed with the capture of Congress in 1994 under Newt Gingrich and the “Contract for America.” The Republican Party’s conservative wing has maintained its dominance in national politics every since.

[An interesting sidebar to this discussion comes from realizing that the very recent rise to national prominence of Republican neoconservatives is actually not a part of this conservative Republican “revolution.” Neocons are often nowhere near as socially, politically, or economically conservative as their properly conservative brethren, and they’ve junked traditional conservative isolationism for an aggressive democratic imperialism that has the Republican Party aping the Democrats in initiating major military campaigns around the globe. Riding the coattails of the conservative GOP’s rise to power, the neocons should be considered usurpers, not inheritors, as folks like Patrick Buchanan make clear.]

This brief analysis of how Goldwater’s conservative faction of the Republican Party went from abject defeat to sweeping victory is why I don’t hold much hope in things significantly changing, now that the Democratic Party has narrowly seized control of Congress. The Democrats, especially moderate and liberal Democrats, did not learn the vital lesson from their defeats in 1980 and 1994 that long-term success requires they return to their social base to rebuild their political power. As a consequence, the Democratic Party lacks effective organization, forceful party discipline, a unifying program, and an inspirational vision to challenge Republican hegemony. Democrats won by default in 2006. Put another way, the Democratic Party did not win, the Republican Party lost. The Iraq debacle, a string of ethical and moral scandals, a lackluster economy, and hemorrhaging federal spending eroded the Republican conservative base to a degree. More important, these issues drove independent voters en masse into the arms of the Democratic Party. Without anything substantive to hold them there however, it’s not a matter of if, but when, the Democrats once more find themselves out of power.

Regular readers of my column know that this isn’t my main beef with those who are ecstatic over the Democrats gaining majorities in the House and Senate. Even if the Democrats somehow, despite the odds, retain control of Congress for the next six years, and even if the Democrats miraculously manage to win the presidency in 2008, nothing much will change, because there isn’t a rat’s ass worth of difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. All the differences between the four factions of the two parties I outlined above would fit nicely into a single European political party, with room to spare, in a system of parliamentary democracy that frequently includes significant participation by fascists, communists, monarchists, and greens. Democrats got us involved in the first and second World Wars, not to mention Korea and Vietnam. And much as it took a Republican president-Nixon-to normalize relations with Communist China, it took a Democratic president-Clinton-to gut LBJ’s Great Society welfare state. I predict that when Medicare and Social Security go under the axe, it’s a Democratic president who will be doing the chopping.

That Barry Goldwater wouldn’t exactly be welcome in today’s conservative GOP is an enlightening footnote here. Goldwater hated the influence of religious extremism in politics, supported racial desegregation, considered abortion a matter of personal choice, favored the legalization of marijuana, and didn’t have a problem with homosexuality. Karl Hess, in his autobiography Mostly On The Edge, understood that Barry Goldwater was as much the father of modern day American right-wing libertarianism as he was of GOP conservatism. In the end a self-reliant communitarian anarchist, Hess started as Goldwater’s speechwriter, credited for penning the famous quote: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

A sentiment that’s anathema to today’s GOP.