Saturday, December 15, 2018

Death of a President in the United States of Amnesia

Nothing so perfectly reflects the hyper-phoniness of America’s mainstream political dialogue as the recent major media narrative of George H.W. Bush as a devoted public servant and model of civility.

Not speaking ill of the dead around the family of the deceased is proper social etiquette, but presidents’ legacies are public property. Presidents are elected by the people (usually), they are entrusted with the public interest, their decisions impact millions and ripple for decades. If we value democracy, we owe it to ourselves—and especially to future generations—to trade in false praise for an honest examination of Bush’s legacy.

The cold, hard fact is that when H.W. Bush’s record was freshest in our minds, during the 1992 presidential election, he received the lowest percentage of votes of any major party candidate since Republican Alf Landon in 1936. Running while millions of Americans were suffering through a recession, he was seen as an out-of-touch patrician who was unfamiliar with grocery scanners and gazed impotently over the wreckage of inner-city Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots. Not long after Bush lost, news titan Walter Cronkite told an interviewer that the country had lightened its step with the election of Bill Clinton because we knew that we would soon have a president who actually cared about everyday people. Those of us who had been paying attention during the long national nightmare that was 12 years of Reagan-Bush couldn’t wait for Bush to leave office.

In the days after Bush’s death, one of the common refrains among corporate toadies posing as journalists was that Bush consistently put the interests of the country over the interests of his party. In reality, most of his policy positions as vice president and president were narrowly partisan, none more so than his choice of Dan Quayle as vice president in the run-up to the 1988 presidential election.

Quayle was billed as a vibrant new voice on the national political scene, a view to the future, but the truth was that Quayle was a reactionary and a supreme lightweight, a child of privilege who had won a Senate seat through dumb luck—family control of the media throughout much of Indiana and the Ronald Reagan landslide of 1980. Like Sarah Palin after him, Quayle was a national embarrassment, an airhead with minimal experience and little policy knowledge who often assaulted the English language when he went off-script. Like Sarah Palin after him, Quayle’s presence on the ticket was a craven appeasement of right-wing knuckle-draggers in the Republican Party base that reflected very poorly on the judgment of the candidate at the top of the ticket.

Another common refrain among corporate toadies posing as journalists is that Bush was civil, humble, a fundamentally decent man, a claim that is contradicted by Bush's actions overseas and here at home.

As CIA director in 1976, Bush oversaw Operation Condor, in which the U.S. covertly supported anti-communist regimes in South America (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia) that tortured and butchered tens of thousands of dissidents and jailed hundreds of thousands more. When American Ronni Moffett and Chilean diplomat/dissident Orlando Letelier were killed in a Washington D.C. car bomb explosion, Bush’s CIA purposely misdirected the FBI investigation with a public assessment which covered up the role of Chilean intelligence in the political assassination. After four years in which the GOP was out of power, Bush rekindled his working relationships with Latin American dictators backed by right-wing death squads as Ronald Reagan’s vice president.

Domestically, the Bush-was-a-fundamentally-decent-man talking point is exploded by Bush’s campaign for president, in 1988. At the time, many Americans had had enough of the selfish and mean-spirited Republican policies that had predominated for the eight years prior. Bush, a blue blood who lacked the charisma of Reagan, was generally not seen as a sympathetic figure. Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis came out of the Democratic convention in the summer of 1988 with a double-digit lead over Bush.

To overcome his deficit in the polls, Bush ran one of the most empty, loathsome, and dishonest campaigns in U.S. political history. In place of issues that actually mattered in peoples’ lives, Bush political adviser Lee Atwater expertly manipulated the lizard brains of undecided voters with a series of distractions. As election day neared, voters were subjected to ads about Dukakis’s veto of a measure mandating that Massachusetts teachers lead their students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, an absurd non-issue that Bush hammered Dukakis on repeatedly. Bush also made the suspect claim that Dukakis, who had a better environmental record than Bush, was responsible for the pollution in the Boston Harbor, rather than the notoriously regulation-averse Reagan Administration EPA.

Most disgraceful of all was the Bush campaign’s Willie Horton ad. During the ’70s and ’80s, some felons were eligible for weekend furloughs. A part of the prison reform movement, the policy was common in both Republican- and Democrat-run states; Ronald Reagan had supported the policy as governor of California, even after two furloughed inmates were accused of murder.

Willie Horton was a black felon serving a life sentence in Massachusetts for a 1974 murder. Given a weekend release in 1986, Horton stabbed a man and tied up and raped his fiancée. The Bush campaign capitalized on this horrific incident by running a series of ads introducing Willie Horton to the American public. On the surface, the ads presented Dukakis as weak on crime, but the deeper motive was to play to the racism and fear of black men among white voters. The campaign was so ugly that Atwater apologized to Michael Dukakis on his deathbed.

Once elected, Bush washed the dirt from his hands and did some good things. Many historians credit Bush with an adept response to the end of the Cold War. Bush said that his administration would be a “kinder, gentler” version of Ronald Reagan’s domestically, and in some instances this was true. He signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act and broke with anti-tax extremists in his party to negotiate a budget deal with congressional Democrats that kept the skyrocketing Reagan-Bush deficit at bay with budget cuts and a small tax increase on the wealthy. He also worked with Congressional Democrats to update and renew the Clean Air Act and appointed the highly-qualified moderate Republican David Souter to the Supreme Court. 

But as could be expected of a politician in a party run by and appealing to people with authoritarian personality types, Bush for the most part hewed to Republican orthodoxy. After 15 years of no large-scale American interventions overseas following the horrors of Vietnam, Bush made militarism cool again by unilaterally invading former ally Manuel Noriega’s Panama under false pretenses, killing 3,000 civilians and destroying thousands of homes in the poverty-stricken El Chorrillo neighborhood of Panama City. One year later, after Bush’s ambassador April Glaspie had given Saddam Hussein a green light to go into Kuwait by saying that the U.S. “[has] no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts,” Bush invaded Kuwait under false pretenses to expel the military of former ally Hussein. Often hailed as a successful intervention, the operation laid waste to both human and military infrastructure, leading to the death of over 150,000 Iraqi civilians. The war also elevated the profile of Dick Cheney, whom Bush had plucked from relative obscurity to become Defense Secretary, putting Cheney on a path to become one of the most destructive leaders in American history.

Though Bush was hot to trot when it came to war, he was lukewarm at best in dealing with the biggest threat civilization faced, forcing negotiators to water down the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change because “the American way of life is not up for negotiations.”

Domestically, Bush vetoed the Family and Medical Leave Act (later signed by Bill Clinton) multiple times. He reversed his earlier support for a woman’s right to choose, appointing mostly anti-choice judges to the lower courts and sustaining the Reagan Administration's “gag rule,” which stipulated that clinics receiving foreign aid from the United States couldn’t perform abortions with their own money or even provide counseling about abortion. He fell short in responding to the AIDS crisis that was terrorizing America’s gay community and showed scant concern for working-class Americans who were suffering through an economic downturn when he vetoed the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act of 1991, which would have extended unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed. Though he was found wanting on these vital issues, Bush somehow made time in his busy schedule to hawk a purely token Constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning.

Another one of the common refrains among corporate toadies posing as journalists was that Bush, like John McCain, was “a patriot.” The assertion in its most basic formulation is that military combat + occasional departures from party orthodoxy = “patriot,” no matter what else the person in question has done in their public life. The problem with this claim is that an objective analysis of the public record shows that Bush, like McCain, was more often than not an opportunistic conservative Republican, the furthest thing imaginable from a patriot.

Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Bush’s record on race issues. In 1959, when Bush moved from the East Coast to Jim Crow-era Texas, his family house had a covenant which read "No part of the property in the said Addition shall ever be sold, leased, or rented to, or occupied by any person other than of the Caucasian race, except in the servants' quarters." As a candidate for Senate in 1964, Bush criticized the Civil Rights Act for undermining state’s rights (i.e. undermining individual states’ “rights” to discriminate on the basis of race) and leveled the spurious claim that the bill was unconstitutional. 

After getting into the White House with the virulently racist Willie Horton ad, President Bush doubled down on Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, which was putting record numbers of black men behind bars, and even had the DEA lure (and entrap) a teenage African-American drug dealer to the park across from the White House so Bush could stage a photo op on the evils of crack-cocaine. Bush vetoed the Motor Voter Bill (which made it easier for people of color to register to vote), the Civil Rights Bill re-write, and the Voting Rights re-write. After congressional Democrats weakened protections against discrimination to suit Bush's demands, he signed versions of the latter two bills, but even as he did so, his hatchet man C. Boyden Gray appealed to the worst instincts of prejudiced white voters by pushing an executive order to end Affirmative Action in federal contracting.

Bush’s contempt for black Americans was most obvious in his decision to appoint Clarence Thomas to fill Thurgood Marshall’s seat on the Supreme Court. On the surface, Bush was appointing one black judge to replace another, giving the appearance of offering African-Americans a place at the table, but the reality was the complete opposite. Where Marshall had spent his adult life working on behalf of civil rights and civil liberties, Thomas had pimped himself out to the Reagan Administration, which was hostile to both. Bush maintained his support for the appointee even after it came out that Thomas had likely sexually harassed Anita Hill, whom he had supervised at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and other women who weren’t called to testify in Senate hearings.

Since Thomas squeaked through Senate confirmation, he has proven to be perhaps Bush’s worst legacy, both in terms of his lack of legal chops (he went ten years at one point without making a single comment in Supreme Court hearings) and in his 19th Century belief system. Thomas has not only voted with the GOP majority on all of the most undemocratic, precedent-shattering decisions—including Bush v. Gore and Citizens United—but has consistently sided against the interests of the black community. Though he clearly benefited from Affirmative Action, Thomas voted to kill it in Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena. In Shelby County v. Holder Thomas joined the white Republican judges who decided to gut the Voting Rights Act, under the false pretense that it was no longer necessary, which paved the way for Republican voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise voters of color.  

One year after the Thomas appointment, Bush ran for re-election. Though he had been considered a shoe-in after Gulf War I, his approval ratings had fallen precipitously as the economy started to stagnate. Worse yet, he was facing Bill Clinton, a fresh face with uncanny political skills backed by a party eager to win after 12 years out of the White House. Unable to exploit Clinton’s womanizing due to his own infidelities, seen as out of touch by Americans struggling through the recession, and saddled with positions on most issues that were to the right of the average citizen, Bush fell back on the lowest trick in the book:  attacking Clinton’s patriotism. As a young man, Clinton had organized protests of the Vietnam War while living abroad. Though organizing the protests actually showed that Clinton had been on the right side of history, and though the protests had happened two decades earlier and had little to no relevance to 1992, Bush engaged in the typical Republican tactic of throwing shit at the wall, hoping it would stick.

It didn’t.

Clinton won in a landslide.

As a parting gift, right before leaving office, Bush pardoned six Republican officials who had committed felonies in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan Administration had broken federal law by secretly funding the Contras, a CIA-backed mercenary force seeking to overturn the communist leadership in Nicaragua. The pardons wiped away six years of work by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, flushed tens of millions of taxpayer dollars down the toilet, and conveniently guaranteed that Bush would never be held accountable for his direct role in the scandal and the lies he had told investigators.

Unfortunately, George H.W. Bush’s legacy didn’t end in 1992. In 2001, Bush’s oldest son took office after stealing a presidential election through a long list of sleazy tactics engineered by Bush’s second son, chief among them the disenfranchisement of thousands of black Floridians with a knowingly-flawed scrub list of the voting rolls. The whiff of scandal surrounding Bush Sr. would be eclipsed by the staggeringly-corrupt W, who manipulated the fear caused by 9/11 and the public trust invested in him to lie us into a war of choice that fractured Iraq along ethnic fault lines, created millions of refugees, left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, and cost taxpayers trillions of dollars—while actually making the region less stable.  

W’s rigid adherence to right-wing ideology and string of colossal fuck-ups (the security failure of 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, the economic collapse of 2008) made Bush Sr. look benign and competent by comparison. Unlike W—and Reagan, and Donald Trump—H.W. Bush had both the intelligence and qualifications for the job and an interest in the process of governing. Also by contrast to Reagan, W, and Trump, H.W. Bush served his country in uniform and had some sense of noblesse oblige.

But by choosing the Republican Party as his home, H.W. Bush signed a deal with the devil in which he did the bidding of the most toxic forces in American life more often than not.  

Favorably comparing Bush by temperament and experience to the surreally-infantile and inexperienced Trump gives corporate toadies posing as journalists the feeling that they are being “fair-minded” and “non-partisan,” but since when is being less awful than other Republican presidents an endorsement of one’s humanity, decency, or service to the republic?

Until the United States reckons honestly with its past, we will be stuck with fraudulent national narratives believed by a critical mass of credulous, politically-illiterate citizens who are ill-equipped in the voting booth, steadily perpetuating America’s downward spiral to the fate of ancient Rome.

More political writing by Dan Benbow: 

Aliens, unicorns, and the narcissism 
of voting Green

10 reasons Barack Obama is clearly
the best president in my lifetime

178 reasons Hillary Clinton is infinitely better
than Donald Trump (even on her worst day)

The Master of Low Expectations:  666 Reasons Sentient Citizens 
are Still Celebrating the Long Overdue Departure of George W. Bush

 Follow Dan Benbow on Twitter       

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Aliens, unicorns, and the narcissism of voting Green

Last summer Democrats had an opportunity to pick up what should have been a safe Republican seat in the House of Representatives. The special election in Ohio’s 12th district pitted Republican Troy Balderson against Democrat Danny O’Connor. Other than outlier elections, the district had been Republican for the past 100 years. In 2014 and 2016, the Republican incumbent, Pat Tiberi, received twice as many votes as his Democratic opponent.

Due to Donald Trump’s unpopularity and Democratic voter enthusiasm, polls leading up to the closely-watched August 7 special election showed a tight race. As with the April victory of Democrat Conor Lamb in a Republican district in Pennsylvania, O’Connor’s win would signal to Democratic voters in other pink and red districts that their votes might actually matter this fall. A win would also make O’Connor the favorite in the fall election, putting the Democrats one seat closer to control of the House of Representatives next year. Control of the House would allow the Democrats to check Trump’s insidious agenda, release Trump’s tax returns to the public, investigate Trump’s pre-election collusion with Russia and other acts of political, personal, and financial corruption, and leak the findings from these investigations to the press, reducing the likelihood that Trump would be re-elected.

The lead swung back and forth on election night, but O’Connor had a big disadvantage—the presence of Green Party candidate Joe Manchik on the ballot. Through much of the evening, it was clear that Manchik could cost O’Connor the race by siphoning just enough left-leaning votes to put Balderson over the top. Manchik, a political novice who had speculated that he might have come from an alien race, expressed no concern over possibly helping elect a Republican, since O’Connor was part of the “corporate-capitalist and corporate owned Democratic-Republican Duopoly Oligarchy Party cabal of evil and greed and wars for oil that is driving our country off the road and deep into the ditch of fascism, oligarchy and plutocracy and onto the path to World War III.”

As it turned out, Balderson won by a few hundred more votes than Manchik received, robbing Manchik of the opportunity to be a spoiler, but the possibility that this purely token candidate would play a pivotal role in electing a right-wing Republican made me wonder, yet again: why would any rational, informed, liberal American vote for a Green Party candidate in a winner-take-all election of any consequence?

Green Party officials have long wheeled out the claim that they present an alternative to the Democratic Party, but how realistic of an “alternative” is a party that has barely ever cracked 10% in a federal race and is as likely to send a candidate to Congress as rope a herd of purple unicorns?

Yes, many Democratic office holders’ policy positions aren’t that far left when compared to progressive politicians in other developed countries, but the U.S. is decidedly more conservative than its first world peers. Liberals only make up about one-fourth of American voters; in order to win outside of deep blue districts, Democrats have to appeal to suburban soccer moms, blue-collar Joe Six Packs, and independents.

And despite ideological accommodations to electoral reality, the Democrats are worlds better than Republicans on a long list of issues, including but not limited to access to birth control and the protection of a woman’s right to choose, financial aid and loan forgiveness for college students, access to healthcare, prescription drugs, and prescription drug price control, consumer protection, immigration, environmental issues, drug laws, regulation of Wall Street and other business interests, support for unions, workers’ rights, and worker safety, the minimum wage, investments in infrastructure and social services, progressive taxation/income inequality, LGBT rights, civil rights, voting rights, gun control, net neutrality, campaign finance, support for stem cell research, science, and empiricism, the separation of church and state, protection of Social Security, and a whole host of foreign policy issues stemming from the stark difference between a long-game multilateral approach and an impulsive unilateral approach with little concern for international treaties, norms, or relationships.

Yes, many races are so lopsided that a third-party vote won’t make a difference, but what about close elections? Given that the two major parties are very different at the federal level (see above), why is it that a small number of Americans are willing to empower—knowingly or otherwise—the very same forces they claim to oppose?

American Greens had their first real world impact in 1997, when Green Party candidate Carol Miller helped elect Republican Bill Redmond by three-thousand votes over Democrat Eric Serna for Santa Fe, New Mexico’s congressional seat. As usual, the Greens showed no remorse for playing a key role in putting someone in office who undermined most of what they stood for, as Redmond became a generally reliable foot soldier for Newt Gingrich, the extremist House speaker. Greens reprised their spoiler role the following year in two Albuquerque, New Mexico races, when their candidate Robert Anderson helped Republican Heather Wilson defeat Democrat Phil Maloof in both a special election and the 1998 general election; as then-head of the New Mexico Conservation Voters Alliance said, “The Green Party has been one of the greatest electoral boons to the Republican Party in the history of the state of New Mexico.”

The 1997 and 1998 congressional races were but a dress rehearsal for the 2000 presidential election. Though Democrat Al Gore was far more progressive than Republican George W. Bush and one of the most qualified people to ever run for president, while Bush was one of the least, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader engaged in an extended exercise in false equivalence, calling Bush and Gore “Tweedledee and Tweedledumb” and “two heads of the same beast,” implying that the candidates were so similar that it wouldn’t much matter who won.

On election day, Nader received 97,000 votes in Florida and 22,000 in New Hampshire, in both cases exceeding the narrow margins by which Bush won the states many times over; had Nader not been in the race, Gore would have won both states and become president.

When Bush took office in 2001, Nader’s theory that the parties weren’t that different was put to the test. Nader claimed that Gore’s loss was a “cold shower” for the Democratic Party, but it ended up being a cold shower for the whole country, as Bush assaulted nearly every progressive value in sight.

Worst of all, in the run-up to the 2002 mid-term election, Bush and his top advisors manipulated the fear engendered by 9/11 and the faith placed in him by the American public to lie us into the invasion of Iraq, which would turn out to be one of the worst foreign policy decisions in American history. Helped along by the Bush Administration’s flagrantly dishonest media offensive (which played to the Republicans’ perceived strength on national security) and Green Party Candidate Jerry Kaufman, Mike Cox—who would later be part of a GOP lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act—became the first Republican attorney general in Michigan in fifty years. Other beneficiaries of the Bush Administration’s scare tactics were several victorious Republican senatorial candidates who collectively contributed to the GOP wresting control of the Senate from the Democrats, which then guaranteed that Bush’s right-wing judicial nominations would be fast-tracked.

Among these judges was Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh, best known for illegally leaking investigation-related information to reporters during Ken Starr's $70 million witch hunt of Bill Clinton, was called “the youngest, least experienced and most partisan appointee to the court in decades" when he was first nominated.

Kavanaugh sat on the District of Columbia Court through multiple election cycles. In 2004, Nader’s vote total dropped off precipitously as (most) Green voters grasped the dangerous folly of wasting their vote on a third party, but it was too late, as Bush had become a wartime leader with all of the advantages of incumbency. Gore looked pretty goddamn good as first-term Bush not only lied us into a blood-soaked, staggering failure of a war but brought the country to the brink of fascism with the Patriot Act, semi-constant hints that opponents—including media—were anti-American, and color-coded fear alerts he sought to manipulate for political ends. Second-term Bush let New Orleans drown, birthed the worst recession in 80 years by ignoring warning signs in the overheated housing market, took us from a record budget surplus to a record deficit, and left Barack Obama with a colossal mess to clean up.

In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama won by such large margins that the Green Party couldn’t do any damage, leaving their candidates to do what Green candidates usually do at the federal level—languish in complete obscurity, contributing exactly nothing of value to the political process.

Then came 2016.

As in 2000, Democrats were up against the eight-year-curse, with Republican voters hungry to get into the White House after two presidential terms in the wilderness. As in 2000, Democrats put up a technocrat with stellar qualifications for the job, while Republicans chose a man of privilege embarrassing in his ignorance, lack of experience, and profound unsuitability for the toughest job in the world. As in 2000, due to the deeply conservative, even reactionary nature of much of the American electorate, the presidential race was close; every (swing state) vote counted.

Enter Jill Stein.

Stein, like Nader a millionaire likely to face no negative impact from the election no matter whom was elected, and sporting shady connections to Vladimir Putin, exhumed Nader 2000’s false equivalence narrative in which a vote for the highly-qualified, vastly superior Democratic candidate was a vote for “the lesser of two evils.” Though the Democrats put up their most progressive platform ever and Clinton pushed an aggressive proposal to regulate Wall Street endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, Stein attacked Clinton as beholden to corporate interests, helped legitimize dubious GOP talking points by chiding Clinton over her email server, pimped the ridiculous claim that Clinton might start a nuclear war with Syria, even at one point mimicked Trump’s attacks on Clinton’s health, suggesting she drop out of the race.

The notion that Clinton and Trump were offsetting penalties, that the result of the 2016 race wouldn’t much matter, was belied by mountains of evidence, but Stein’s message took hold among a crucial number of ideological purists, uninformed young people, and Bernie Sanders supporters who were still angry over the results of the 2016 Democratic primary. No matter that Hillary had won not because of the DNC, but because she had consistently clobbered Bernie among Democrats of color. No matter that Hillary had voted with Bernie 93% of the time they were in the Senate together. No matter that Bernie himself had said Hillary “on her worst day is infinitely better than any Republican candidate on his best day.” No matter that Bernie campaigned for Hillary after the primary, reiterating at rally after rally how important it was to keep Donald Trump out of the White House.

Had Clinton won, we could have easily forgotten Stein, just as we’ve forgotten every single federal Green Party candidate other than Nader, but fate intervened. Eleven days before the election, while Clinton had a six-point lead in national polls and appeared destined to become our next president, Republican FBI head James Comey made the completely unprecedented move of sending a letter to Congress announcing that he was re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s email server.

The weekend before election day, Comey said that his new search had turned up nothing, but the damage had been done. Comey’s letter gave life to the overblown and hypocritical Republican talking point that Clinton was “crooked,” which swung not only fence-sitting independents but enough Stein supporters in the pivotal states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan to put Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

The results are plain to see. James Comey fired for looking into Putin-Trump collusion in the 2016 election. A major coarsening and dumbing down of our political discourse, to the point where up is down and black is white for tens of millions of ignorant and confused Americans. Hate groups so emboldened that they no longer feel a need to hide, with right-wing extremists shooting up a synagogue, killing a black couple in cold blood, and trying to bomb high-profile liberals—all in the last week. An aggressive rollback of Obama’s measures to protect the environment and regulate Wall Street. Children separated from their parents at the border. LGBT rights under assault. 1.5 trillion dollars of taxpayer money pissed away on a tax cut for the wealthy. The Paris Climate Accords and a historic agreement to stop Iran from going nuclear in tatters, a landmark nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia on life support. A fraying of our international alliances and a plunge in America’s image abroad. And a long-term assault-in-the-making on all of the domestic matters above—and long-established precedents for rule of law—through Trump’s record number of judicial appointments, chief among them new Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Thanks to the Green Party, right-wing extremist Kavanaugh became a federal judge in 2006 due to the elevation of Bush and could now determine the fate of Roe v. Wade. Women unfortunate enough to live outside of California, New York, and other deep blue states could soon be forced to drive—or fly—thousands of miles to exercise their reproductive rights, or, lacking the time and resources, put their health and safety at risk with self-administered coat-hanger abortions. Choice is only one casualty of the ideology-first Green Party voters, as our far-right Supreme Court gets ready to lay waste to one liberal bedrock after another these next couple decades, effectively eradicating big sections of 20th Century progress.

The lower courts could stop or slow some of the erosion, but as long as Republican Mitch McConnell runs the Senate Judiciary Committee, appellate and circuit courts will continue to lurch further and further right. Among the small handful of close races that could decide control of the Senate this election cycle is the Arizona contest between Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally. Sinema, a former social worker and the first openly bisexual, non-theist Senate candidate in American history, is steering a moderate pro-immigrant, pro-LGBT, pro-gun control direction, while her opponent is a conservative Republican who has the distinctions of voting with Trump 97% of the time and accusing McSally of committing treason for a single sarcastic comment she made on the radio 15 years ago. 

The distinctions between the candidates are clear, the stakes of Senate control are obvious, yet the Green Party is fielding a token candidate in the race, a mortgage broker with zero political experience, Angela Green. Green’s web URL is, but ironically, the only impact Green may have is to get just enough votes to put McSally in office, which could potentially tip the balance of the Senate.

One of the Green Party voters’ favorite slogans is “vote your hopes, not your fears,” a variation on the warm and fuzzy catchphrase that to vote Green is to “vote one’s conscience.” The underlying belief is that voting is most significant as an internal process, that it is primarily about the individual, how they feel about their vote. The problem with this view is that it ignores adult concepts like trade-offs and compromise and the real-world impact of voting; true progressivism is and always has been about selflessness and helping others, not helping ourselves through purely symbolic, narcissistic acts that can ultimately hurt the most disadvantaged among us. As the radical activist Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

More political writing by Dan Benbow: 

10 reasons Barack Obama is clearly
the best president in my lifetime

178 reasons Hillary Clinton is infinitely better
than Donald Trump (even on her worst day)

The Master of Low Expectations: 666 Reasons Sentient Citizens 
are Still Celebrating the Long Overdue Departure of George W. Bush

 Follow Dan Benbow on Twitter       

Sunday, September 9, 2018


“BlacKkKlansman” couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency gave many Americans a smug satisfaction in their country’s racial enlightenment, a feeling that we had overcome, that the hopes and dreams of the ’60s civil rights movement had finally been realized. Donald Trump’s election paved the way for Spike Lee’s newest release by showing just how misplaced this sense of national pride was; it’s hard to imagine this movie having the same degree of resonance if Hillary Clinton had won.

Based on a true story, “BlacKkKlansman” follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the African-American man who integrated the Colorado Springs police department in the early ’70s. After toiling away in the records department for a spell, Stallworth is elevated to the rank of detective. He meets love interest Patrice (Laura Harrier), the head of the local black student union, on his first assignment, going undercover at a speech by black power activist Kwame Ture

Ture is targeted because Stallworth’s chief feels he is a potential security threat, but he is in and out of Colorado Springs in short order. A permanent presence, one with real potential for violence, is the local Ku Klux Klan. With some persistence, Stallworth convinces his boss to greenlight an investigation of the local Klan chapter.

In a series of darkly funny scenes, Stallworth dials up Klan members, including future Trump supporter David Duke, the Klan’s national director, and impersonates a racist white man who is eager to join the organization. Since Stallworth can’t attend the meetings without being discovered, white detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) infiltrates the Klan in person. Like Stallworth, Zimmerman has to fake loyalty to an ideology he despises and swallow his pride as the Klansmen he associates with routinely spit out anti-Semitic vitriol.

While Zimmerman investigates the Klan, suspense builds over whether or not he will be found out and on a personal level, Zimmerman faces tension between his professional role and his private self. Prodded by Patrice (no fan of law enforcement), Stallworth deals with a similar internal struggle.

The connections between Colorado Springs in the ’70s and Trump’s America are many. The image of Richard Nixon, the first modern president to exploit white majority racism, appears throughout the movie on campaign posters and signs. Discussing David Duke, one Klansmen tells another that by acting civil and wearing a three-piece suit, Duke is mainstreaming the white power movement, to which the other says, “hopefully one day we get someone in the White House who embodies it.” In case anyone doesn’t get the message, the phrases “America first” and “make America great again” are randomly shouted out in a crowded hall where Duke is speaking.

Everything leads up to a bravura segment that flips back and forth between a joyous Klan initiation emceed by David Duke and a somber set where activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte tells a group of young black political activists the gruesome story of Jesse Washington, a black man who was brutally tortured and murdered in Waco, TX in 1916. The scene shows not only how out of touch the white people at the Klan event are about race but how vastly the perspectives of the two groups of people differ. As Belafonte points out, racist whites aren’t the whole problem; referencing Washington’s murder, he says, “A lot of good white folks stood there like it was a 4th of July parade,” clearly implicating the millions of otherwise decent Americans who normalize or ignore Trump’s bigotry.

“BlacKkKlansman” shifts directions and moods multiple times in the last five-ten minutes, to great effect. There is a feel-good scene in the police office that would be the ending in 99% of Hollywood movies, but Spike Lee refuses to follow formula storyboards. Just as the audience begins to feel safe, a mysterious knock comes at Stallworth’s door in the middle of the night. The startling finale is a necessary shock to the system, a reflection of the primal forces Trump has unleashed and a sad reminder that 150 years after its end, the Civil War continues to rage in the dark hearts of all too many red state Americans.

More civil rights writing by Dan Benbow:

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Road to the Mountaintop (about the speech King gave on the last night of his life)

A look back at "Strange Fruit" on the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth

Honest Abe Makes Sausage (a review of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln")

    Brown v. Board and Three Dog Night's "Black and White"
                         Actions, Not Words (a life review of Ollie Matson, an Olympic medal 
                         winner, NFL Hall-of-Famer, civil rights trailblazer, and good citizen)

                                                                  Colin Kaepernick is right

"Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

"Battle of the Sexes"

                                                                        "American Hustle"


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Angelic voices, #4: Aretha Franklin performs before Barack Obama and Carole King

Aretha Franklin had a voice and a career without parallel among soul vocalists. 

Like many other black singers, Franklin learned her craft in a place of worship, the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father was the pastor. By the age of 14, she already had the It Factor, as heard in this gospel recording from 1956. 

When Franklin was 21, her first major-label album, "Laughing on the Outside," was released by Columbia Records. Opinions vary on her Columbia catalog, which leaned on pop and jazz arrangements. What's undeniable is that she found her stride, commercially and artistically, after leaving Columbia and signing with Atlantic Records in the mid-'60s. As detailed in the wonderful documentary "Muscle Shoals," Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler brought Franklin together with the Swampers, a crack team of Southern R & B studio musicians. The results were a string of timeless hits:  "Chain of Fools," "Think," "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," "Respect," and the crown jewel, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," below.

This period would serve as a trampoline for a magnificent career that would include 112 singles in the Billboard top 200, 75 million records sold, and Franklin becoming the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

Unlike many entertainers who play it safe to line their pockets, Franklin made her humanistic values clear, singing at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral, Jimmy Carter's inaugural, both of Bill Clinton's inaugurals, and Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony. Among Franklin's most dramatic public performances was her rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman" in 2015 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where Carole King, among others, was receiving a lifetime achievement award. King's delight at this startling tribute is moving, as is the presence of our elegant first lady and president, whose preternatural cool melts at the beauty of it all. This moment combined some of the best elements of America, from the the marriage of Brill Building songwriting and gospel to the fruits of the civil rights movement to the unification of a large crowd of people from very diverse backgrounds that only music can provide. Aretha was, quite simply, the most transcendent singer this country has produced. 

                                           Other "Truth and Beauty" vocalist profiles: 

                        There must be something in the water:  the magic of "Muscle Shoals" 

             A look back at "Strange Fruit" on the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth

Angelic voices, #3:  Janis Joplin sings "Cry Baby"