Thursday, February 26, 2009

Stopping the Highway to Hell: Real Transit Change Needed in Stimulus Package

President Obama's stimulus package presents a challenge: a choice between real change or business as usual. The Presidents' focus on "shovel ready" capital projects that advance the highway lobby compromises his mission of social justice and reversing global warming. At a time when the world is 1 degree warmer with at least another degree in the pipeline the proposed allocation of $27 billion for highways is an attack on the environment and science. It presages an even greater ecological disaster--the federal transportation bill which, if not dramatically amended, will deliver 80 percent of several hundred billion more dollars to the highway industry.

The House stimulus package allocated only $12 billion for public transportation. This was raised from $9 billion but still is dwarfed by the highway budget-and is in danger of being raided by the Senate for even more highway funding. Meanwhile the existing mass transit infrastructure is deteriorating, as St. Louis, for example, is facing a 43% cut in transit services. The best and most cost-effective solution for transit capital is to fund brand new, clean fuel, expansion buses to run on already built surface streets and highways along with new rail cars to run on already existing tracks. The key is to eliminate new highway construction altogether and restrict highway funding to repairing existing structures.

Yet the stimulus package allocates no money for transit "operations funds." "Operations" means "jobs" for drivers, mechanics, maintenance, and clerical workers. Without federal operating funds local transit agencies raise fares, cut service, and try to push through more regressive sales taxes, driving people out of mass transit. Congressperson DeFazio of Oregon made an amendment for $2 billion in operations funds but was voted down in the House.

Here are structural changes the President and Congress need to make.

  • Allocate $20 billion for bus and subway operations and take it right out of the $27 billion for highways.
  • Allocate $20 billion for transit capital beginning with expanding urban bus systems with the purchase of 20,000 buses. 20,000 new buses would generate 140,000 assembly and parts jobs and another 100,000 jobs for bus drivers, mechanics, maintenance people for 12 years-240,000 green collar jobs. Another priority is to fund new subway cars on already existing track-the New York subway, MARTA in Atlanta, the Chicago El, which can double service and generate new jobs without the short term jobs and long-term profits construction companies demand.
  • Use part of the $20 billion operating budget to cut transit fares in half. LA's $5 a day pass would be $2.50, New York's $7 a day cut to $3.50. Fare reductions would dramatically increase transit use creating more jobs and getting people to the jobs they barely have. It would generate $120 a month in disposable income for a family of four transit users for housing, clothes, and food-pump priming the economy and their own lives.
  • Establish a civil rights provision that no federal transit funds can be allocated in a racially discriminatory manner and allowing civil rights groups to bring actions to challenge federal transit policy under a strengthened Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In LA and other U.S. cities a county-wide, low-fare, clean fuel bus system with bus only lanes and freeway bus lanes combined with auto free zones and rush hours would dramatically cut greenhouse gases and support a collective public, rather than single private, transportation system.

The Obama presidency is a great victory for the civil rights and progressive movement. Many of us gave money, phone banked, and organized door to door to deliver his message of change. His decisions to close down Guantanamo and eliminate torture as policy are already great achievements. His next step should be to stand up to the highway lobby and acknowledge the disastrous impacts of expanded highway and auto use on global warming. The priority must be to fund workers who assemble and operate buses and rail cars, and to make a massive investment in operating funds to lower fares and increase service for the transit dependent--those who desperately need public transportation to get to jobs, medical care, and education. Those are changes we must have and can believe in. Read more On "Stopping the Highway to Hell: Real Transit Change Needed in Stimulus Package"!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Film Review: Revolutionary Road - A revolution not carried out, or even considered.

Revolutionary Road: Drama. Starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Directed by Sam Mendes.

“Revolutionary Road” is an important, gripping, must-see film. The dynamics between April Wheeler (played by Kate Winslet) and her husband, Frank Wheeler (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) are painfully and vividly gripping. This is the tragedy of suburbia and women’s oppression inside the suburban, nuclear marriage. It is the tragedy that would have befallen the lovers of the Titanic had not Jack Dawson (Leonard DiCaprio) met his icy demise and instead married Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and time traveled with her to suburban Connecticut in the mid-1950s.

“Revolutionary Road” is the tragedy that would have befallen the lovers of the Titanic had not Jack Dawson (Leonard DiCaprio) met his icy demise and instead married Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet).

The starkness of white suburbia gives me chills. I am an avid fan of "Mad Men," the present TV series on AMC, and it too creates a terrifying déjà vu. I grew up in the white suburbs, Valley Stream Long Island, from 1949 through my college years at Cornell in 1960. It was the great escape from Brooklyn, the move to what our neighbors called “the country.”

This was the period of the GI Bill, when liberal Democrat Franklin Roosevelt created the greatest social welfare program in history to reward the soldiers who had fought against Hitler and Fascism. (Roosevelt also extended the scope and power of the American empire.) For the first time, houses could be bought with loans of 15 years or more, at interest rates that were subsidized and tax deductible. My parents bought a house for $13,500 in 1949 and the interest was 1 %. The housing boom and the bank lending boom were only made possible by the highway boom, the great achievement of the Eisenhower years when federal dollars were spent in the biggest post-war investment in infrastructure, in support of suburban developers and the auto industry.

The end result was that people could afford the little boxes on the hillside made of ticky tacky that all looked just the same in the plan of Levittown. They could work in downtown Manhattan, and then commute by car or suburban commuter rail from Long Island, Connecticut, or Westchester. This is the suburban sprawl that has led us to a world of pollution, global warming, an auto fetish—to the one-house, two-car, 2-and-1/2-kids road to consumption, alienation, and anomie.

At no time do April and Frank think about the world around them; they are each other’s world.

Frank Wheeler and April Wheeler begin as winners but soon find themselves terrified captives of the American Dream. They buy a beautiful house in the suburbs. Frank goes to work for Knox Business machines, the same firm as his father, with the same depressing 9-to-5 future. April finds herself alone in the house with the kids, where did her life go? When they met she was an aspiring actress and he an aspiring, charismatic somebody but seven years and two kids later they are bitter and alienated—she trapped in the home, him in his job, and each screaming at each other about whose life is more suffocating.

In a touching front door scene, April Wheeler, all dolled up for Frank’s 30th birthday, beautiful children on both sides, welcomes him with a great proposal. They will ditch it all, sell the house, and move to Paris. April will get a job as a secretary for a school that pays very well, and Frank will be allowed to pursue his dreams. At first he is ecstatic, but over time he is ambivalent, a promotion is offered at work and he begins to have second thoughts that at first he does not share with April. Unspoken in the film is the question, “Does Frank really have any dreams left or did he really have any in the first place? Does he have the capacity or the will to be a film-maker, an artist, a mime, a cyclist, or any of the usual fantasies of “finding yourself” for the corporate robots. His worst fear: what if he ended up selling business machines for a firm in Paris? Replicating his father’s life under the banner of opportunity and self-choice.

In the end, while the tragedy is about men and women, it is most hauntingly a story about the stultifying lives of women in suburbia, where the concept of the housewife” with all the appropriate commodities was enshrined.

The key to the story is April, for in the end, while the tragedy is about men and women, it is most hauntingly a story about the stultifying lives of women in suburbia, where the concept of the “housewife” with all the appropriate commodities was enshrined. April, a brilliant, beautiful woman, plans her escape and her dream of freedom with a plan to bankroll, produce, and direct her husband’s, which are in fact her own, wildest dreams.
The tragedy of the film is both within its own four walls but also from the false promise of personal happiness locked in the realm of individual fulfillment outside of ethics, society, or any hope of changing the world. At no time do April and Frank think about the world around them; they are each other’s world. She does not say, “Let’s go down south to help Black people register to vote, let’s end the Korean War or go to Paris to free the Algerians and be part of an international movement.” In fact, in the context of the film those words would sound ridiculous and contrived. Yet those questions were there for the asking, a real choice of a revolutionary road neither taken or even considered—one that a many brave souls did make at the same time. Remember that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus at the very moment April and Frank were trapped in their white, suburban dead-end.

And yet, those paths less traveled were the very ones that millions of children of the April’s and Frank’s of the 1950’s did take, the escape from suburbia and from the terrifying tragedy of the nuclear family door to door to door. If revolting against poverty and racism did not come out of their own genetic or socio-economic script, the white kids who went South—who went left—did understand the tragedy of their parents’ lives, the desperate struggle for accumulation, the barrenness of the TV and consumer suburbs. They understood what the film does not address even with a wink or a nod: the profound racism of white suburban life, the unbearable whiteness of being.

They understood what the film does not address even with a wink or a nod: the profound racism of white suburban life, the unbearable whiteness of being.

I first came to life when I was 16 and went to work in the South Bronx and worked with Black and Latino youth. When I went to Harlem a year later I knew I had arrived in the promised land. This was where I wanted to be, where I wanted to sink my roots and fight. A whole generation shared my views and we moved towards the real Revolutionary Road that the Wheeler’s missed even though they lived right on it. In the film, director Sam Mendes uses a device from the Richard Yates novel, to interject a character named John Givings to offer a brutal sanity to the situation. An ostensibly mentally ill visitor on leave from a hospital, Givings tells the Wheeler’s, especially Frank, “You are afraid to run away from the hopeless emptiness of this suburban life.” Fortunately for us, our generation of suburban clones had Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Fidel, Che, Mao and Ho to tell us there was a chance to escape, a life of hope and meaning and collectivity on the revolutionary road—and a world to win.

Eric Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers. He is the co-host of Voices from the Frontlines, a public affairs hour show every Monday at 4 PM on KPFK, Pacifica, 90.7 FM, and streaming live on the web at

He is working on his next book, The Twenty Five Qualities of the Successful Organizer. You can find audios of past interviews and film reviews at

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Obama’s Plan to Reform the CIA—Who’s In Charge Here Anyway?

Now Mr. Obama must take charge of the C.I.A., in what is already proving to be one of the more treacherous patches of his transition to the White House.

-- “After Sharp Words on CIA, Obama Faces a Delicate Task,” New York Times, Dec 2, 2008

Barack Obama has just been elected president of the United States. Contrary to the popular illusions of liberals and many on the Left, he is not in charge of the system; the system is in charge of him.

He has many options, great room as an organizer to change the system. But I imagine he must wake up and think, “As brilliant as I am, it is pretty amazing I am president of the United States. I have clear plans, great confidence, an iron will, but how the hell do I deal with all these idiots, liars, lobbyists, Blue Dog Democrats, Clintonesque saboteurs, the capitalist class (and yes, I know it exists) the Pentagon, FBI, and CIA. Sheeet, so now I understand what Kennedy went through. The damn CIA and FBI are already investigating and spying on me. Maybe I shouldn’t have jettisoned Reverend Wright after all. The racism is pretty “endemic” and this damn place has more palace intrigue than the Roman empire.”

So let’s be clear. Barack Obama may be able to impact the Department of Commerce and the Department of Education but as he gets closer to the police state, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, and the Department of War (it’s original correct name before it Orwelled itself to the “Department of Defense”), remember that he is an elected civilian dealing with a group of armed thugs. We have to wish him well but we also have to get our own organizing selves in gear, for it is up to him to manage the system and it is up to us to change it.

It may seem contradictory but he is on the one hand one of the most powerful men in the world, in perhaps the most powerful individual position, but on the other, do not think for a minute that he is now “in charge.” If we on the Left, and I mean that in the broadest most popular sense of anyone who sees themselves, inside or outside of the Democratic Party, to the left of Obama—if we don’t understand that the system is far more powerful than him, and that he is both a product of the system and a change agent within it, then we are limiting our own historical role. But within that understanding, we have every reason to demand he stand up to the system and be the change agent he ran as. While it is a materialist analysis of history to understand that Obama is the commander in chief of the empire, it is also true that his job is to push it as far to the left as he promised, and as far to the left as we can demand and enforce as a social movement.

Understanding the functioning of the system does not absolve us from making judgments of him or his actions, nor absolve him from historical responsibility—after all, he ran on a “change” platform. History is moving fast and so is Obama, so while we should not rush to judgment we also have the responsibility to look in the mirror; for those of us like me who enthusiastically endorsed his candidacy we have to look at some important early trends and developments. You don’t want to make “left errors” jumping all over him and second guessing every move before he even takes office. But you don’t want to suspend too much disbelief as he appoints Hillary Clinton Secretary of State and brings Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, two of history’s biggest losers, out of disgrace for fiscal mismanagement and fraud into the bowels of the White House to inflict their pain again.

It’s a fact. I wrote Ten Reasons to Get Out the Vote for Barack Obama. My first reason was that he was a Black man, an intelligent, qualified, liberal Black man attacked by a white lynch mob. My second was that John McCain was a war criminal and Sarah Palin was a fascist. I stand by those arguments. But one of my arguments was that Obama’s victory would limit the power of the Clinton machine. Boy, did I mis-assess that. I had no idea he would simply ask the Clinton’s to bring their entire extended family of war and economic criminals back into the White House with him. So, I’m down to nine good reasons to turn out the vote for Barack Obama. My bad, but you learn as you go along.

In subsequent blogs I want to address some other early trends of concern:
1) Obama’s tendency to reward his enemies and punish his friends. Not a great character trait and already something to be worried about.
2) Obama’s tendency to blow off the Left including left Democrats who gave him his main base of support and volunteers.
3) Obama’s fiscal stimulus package as an anti-environmental pork barrel.

But for the moment, knowing you can barely contain yourself waiting for those other blogs. I want to focus on Obama’s efforts to reform the CIA.

I think we should offer strong support to Obama in his fight with the Right. (And do not forget that the Republicans and Palin are already plotting for a counter-revolution in 2010 just as Newt Gingrich pulled off with his Contract With America against Clinton in 1992, from which Clinton never recovered, choosing to join Gingrich rather than fight him.)

So as we follow the battle with the CIA, we have to remember that Obama ran for and was elected president of the U.S. empire. We have every right, as organizers, to hold him responsible for his actions, but I reject the thinking of some in the liberal and left punditocracy who talk about him is if he has unfettered free will and judge him based on a bizarre sense of voluntarism that reflects more illusions than the average voter. “Why doesn’t he do this, no he should do that?”

Aren’t we the ones who talk about the capitalist system, the white power structure, U.S. imperialism, the U.S. empire, the military-industrial complex, the racist re-enslavement complex, the U.S. as a white settler state? At least I do. So if that is the case, what in the hell do we expect him—the president-elect of U.S. empire—to do? Have a socialist revolution, smash the state, free the slaves, empty the prisons, close down 750 U.S. military bases all over the world, end the war in Iraq and end the occupation of Afghanistan, curb the corporate monsters, put them all in jail for their gross crimes against the people?

Now look. If I was elected president I can promise you I would immediately imprison Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, the Mutt and Jeff, the Jack Spratt and his wife, of corporate malfeasance. They would be serving life in prison for deregulatory fraud and grand theft that has cost millions their jobs, life savings, pensions, and caused untold death and destruction in the Third World. How did these bastards, these discredited losers land on their feet? I do put that at the feet of Obama, there is nothing about “the system” that required those choices. It is his call and already a slap in the face for any economists who argued against the deregulatory assault led by Clinton, again, led by Bill Clinton and taken even further by George Bush.

I’ll go further. If I were president I would appoint Fidel Castro as Secretary of Defense. No one has more brilliantly defended his nation from the assaults of the devil to the North, a tiny island of sanity and socialism that has beat back invasions, assassinations, and the brutal blockade (which we must demand Obama ends immediately). I would appoint Hugo Chavez ambassador to the U.N. so he could pillory U.S. imperialism every day from an international pulpit. (I just talked with President Chavez and he respectfully declined. He explained to me that he is already in a far more powerful position as the head of successful state, elected with mass support, with its own army, his own far greater voice in the world. He reminded me to resist any careerist fantasies, for in fact, we already hold higher positions than president of the Empire—“organizer” as in “left organizer.” I told him, “My bad. I agree, I was just thinking out loud. Bourgeois day dreaming.”)

So Obama wants to end torture and the abuses of the CIA. He really does. He tries to appoint John O. Brennan, an insider at the CIA to bring about some small but important reforms. Now of course there are a few problems with Brennan. As the New York Times reported, “Mr. Brennan withdrew his name from consideration after liberal critics attacked his alleged role in the agency’s detention and interrogation program. Mr. Brennan protested that he had been a “strong opponent” within the agency of harsh interrogation tactics, yet Mr. Obama evidently decided it was not worth a battle with some of his most ardent supporters on the Left.” Good for the liberals for protesting, and good for him for listening. But now what should he do? Apparently the CIA folks are pissed. The rejection of Brennan seems to indicate “that if you worked in the CIA during the war on terror, you are now tainted” and has created anxiety in the ranks of the agency’s clandestine service.

Gee, I wonder why they have anxiety? So now what does Obama do? He has to find someone to reform the CIA who will not be met by an armed revolt by these clandestine terrorists who call themselves counter-terrorists. Imagine the speech of the new reform director of the CIA.

“Don’t worry guys. You just have to work with the new guidelines. You cannot use waterboarding. But relax, you can set up front groups in Venezuela to try to overthrow Chavez, spread disinformation campaigns, foment counter-revolution but boys, be careful on that torture thing. You can tell the prisoners you will rape and kill them or their wives and children but don’t actually do it. On the other hand, if you absolutely and positively need to, remember about ‘plausible deniability’ you did not hear it from me.”

Do we really understand who the CIA is, and what is its job? The CIA is a bunch of murderers and assassins who are spying on you and me and spying on each other, assassinating foreign leaders and assassinating each other. Hey, even if you don’t read history, don’t you go to the movies? Didn’t you see “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Good Shepherd,” “Syriana,” or “Bourne Identity?” These folks are seriously murderous.

So here is Obama really trying to rally the CIA troops around his reform message. “Listen guys, I want to reform you. I also want you to protect me, and by the way, please don’t assassinate me by coming up with some crazy story about, ‘You see, there was a lone gunman, and he was a friend of Fidel Castro or maybe against Fidel Castro, but anyway, we let him walk down the street and geez, a guy shot him dead so we could never figure out if he acted alone, but believe me, it was a lone gunman, you gotta believe that story, a crazy guy, a fluke.’ And by the way, I am protected by the Secret Service so please do not infiltrate them. And tell your friends—oh I forgot—tell your enemies at FBI to stay out of this one out as well. Do not mess with me because I am president of the United States, I know I am because I had this great interview with Steve Croft on Sixty Minutes. Did you know he even shined my shoes during the commercial breaks? That is the level of loyalty I want.”

Then Obama meets with his top advisors. He asks David Axlerod, “What the hell should I do? I try to appoint “a CIA centrist,” that is, a guy who led the torture but secretly opposed it all the time. Now those damn liberals in Congress tell me he is tainted by his association with what? Of all things, the CIA. So what do I do now? Who isn’t tainted by the CIA? I thought about appointing George Bush Sr. but then I remember he was the head of the CIA. Only a CIA agent or an army general would understand the world of armed struggle and how to have an armed discussion with these guys. David, how do I reform the agency we ask to spy, ask to infiltrate, ask to destabilize and overthrow governments? And if I appoint a master of dirty tricks, who the CIA guys will respect, how do I know he won’t pull dirty tricks on me?”

Obama reads a lot of books. He should read State and Revolution by this guy V.I. Lenin. Lenin said that once you take power you have to smash the state or it will smash you. You have to set up your own intelligence agency to spy on the spies. As Mao explained, threatening to the liberal mind, “a revolution is not a tea party.”

Is Obama going to change the system? I think he will try. He will bring back civil rights as a serious concept, appoint far better judges than the Bush hangmen, defend women’s right to choose, regulate runaway capitalism at least enough to try to save it, throw lots of money at a dying economy, using public funds to bail out the privatizers. He is a liberal, regardless of how he chooses to self-describe. But remember, the New Left was built out of the liberals half-heartedness on civil rights and murderous war in Vietnam—the Democrats’ war. We have to understand Obama’s agenda. In my view he sees that his job is to liberalize, regulate, humanize, and rationalize a dysfunctional empire—he is a reform for the ruling class, not for us. His election offers great opportunities. His contradictions with some of those in power will create openings and his reforms real improvements in people’s lives.

A bit of free advice to President Obama, who I know wakes up every morning to see if I have a new blog post and hangs on my every word. If you proceed with militaristic adventures to prove your anti-terror, anti-Russian, anti-Chinese, anti-Cuban and anti-Venezuelan credentials, you risk more shame and defeat for the empire, and a continued crisis of overextension. You will contribute to the growth of a world Left that is already on the ascendancy and a militant Islam that would have every right to see the U.S. as the main danger. If I was you, and of course I am not, I would consider a real revolution, ending the fundamental drive of U.S. imperialism to take over the world. What? You don’t agree? I understand. But I would proceed with great caution. Remember, I was there when John Kennedy squandered his legacy by selling out the civil rights workers in the South and invading Cuba, how Johnson ended in military and political disgrace by his war crimes in Vietnam. I was a part of Obama’s Army and attended Camp Obama. I turned out the vote for you, phone banked, and my wife Lian and I gave early and often to your campaign. We got great emails from you, Michelle, David Plouffe (a truly gifted organizer) which we returned with money, and even got emails from Joe Biden (whose emails I never returned and almost made me ask for a refund).

You have a unique moment in which you were elected by the Black community, elected by Latinos, and yes, elected by liberals and the Left. If you disrespect that base you may bet away with it for a while. Unfortunately, we are not strong enough to make you pay very much right now. But as someone who made history, remember that those of in the civil rights and anti-war movement made history too. History sometimes moves slowly but sometimes moves rapidly. If there is a period of disillusion with your campaign and a sense of broken promises, then that will help build the grassroots movements and it will, I am sure, bring many of Obama’s Army into a new civil rights and anti-war movement, an anti-racist, anti-imperialist united front. At least that is my hope and what I organize for.

So, I root for Obama, root for him to “reform” the CIA and the army. But I also understand the profound challenges he faces. Let me tell you something I learned about Black elected officials who want to in any way reform the police, the military, and the CIA.

I’m in Newark, New Jersey in 1974 doing an article for the New University Press about what the hell happened in Newark with the betrayal of the election hopes of Kenneth Gibson, the first Black mayor of Newark. It turns out that Puerto Rican militants marched on city hall demanding jobs and an end to police brutality and the Gibson administration put the cops out on them and beat them up. Great, so much for my support for Gibson when he was elected mayor in 1970. But I did not go back to Newark to get my vote back. I came to change the system as a radical journalist at the time.

Earlier, I had organized in Newark in 1965-1967 with the Newark Community Union Project (NCUP), going door-to-door to build an “interracial movement of the poor.” I worked with Black residents of the South and Central wards on rent strikes, police brutality marches. NCUP was a great organization led by “community people” meaning the Black residents of the community and “the students” that is, the Black and white students who came to Newark as others came to the South with CORE and SNCC. It was an exciting time. Eventually Black people decided that the best reform tactic was to burn the city down, and the system responded by killing 32 unarmed residents. So out of that “fire next time” a mass united front was created to elect Kenny Gibson. I never liked Gibson, he was from Prudential Insurance and didn’t even pretend to be a liberal, let alone a leftist (and at that time in history it was not absurd to dream a Black candidate could be on the Left) but I strongly supported his election and the broad united front that brought him to office.

So, eight years later I am back in Newark to see my old friends and doors opened. I interviewed 30 Black leaders, residents and city council people to figure out what the hell happened. How could a reform mayor end up turning on the poor? By this time I was not shocked, at all, I just wanted to know the specific story of how this sell-out happened, by now I had come to understand the painful reality of many Black mayors and power structure’s capacity to coopt and subvert the most modest liberal agendas (and as such, appreciated the greatness of Richard Hatcher in Gary and Harold Washington in Chicago even more).

So I’m interviewing a city hall insider about Ken Gibson. “Why doesn’t he control the police? Why isn’t he bringing about reforms?” And the brother tells me, “Listen. When Kenny got into office he goes into the office of Dominic Spina, the Mafioso chief of police, the Black-hating, gun-toting, racist mf who we all wanted out of there. So before Kenny can open his mouth Spina takes out his gun and says, ‘Look, congratulations on getting elected. So let me tell you how it’s gonna be. I am the general of an army. I am armed, my folks are armed. Do you have an army? Who will protect you? I tell you what, I will. I’ll make sure somebody doesn’t shoot you. In return, stay the fuck out of the Police Department business. As long as you know you work for me everything will be fine.”

So, I imagine that is what Obama’s conversations are like with the CIA and I know he is a tougher guy then Ken Gibson. But the structural challenge remains. I hope the best for Obama, I really do, I think he is an amazing version of himself and I strive to be as good at my strategy as he is at his. I strive to be as good an organizer as he is, as he out-organized McCain and Hillary and now my job is to both ally with and at times, try to out organize him.

In his effort to reform the CIA and outlaw torture, Obama is already being sabotaged by his fellow Democrats. (So what else is new?) Before Obama can even find an acceptable head of Murder Incorporated, his great buddy Senator Diane Feinstein from California undercuts him big time. She tells the press, “I think you have to use the non-coercive standard to the greatest extent possible,” raising the possibility that an imminent terrorist threat might require special measures. So Obama is thinking, “With friends like Feinstein, who needs enemies?” And based on this clarification of the policy, imagine the new head of the CIA explaining the guidelines, “Now remember, the president has issued a strict prohibition on any torture…except in rare cases where imminent national security is involved. You guys use your judgment. Hey, stop the damn laughing, this is as serious as a heart attack.” His grunts reply, “OK boss, so why are you cracking up, you can’t even lay down the law with a straight face.”

In this context, I support Obama’s efforts to reform the CIA. I am deeply moved by his resolute statement: “There will be no torture. I will close down Guantanamo prison.” I don’t know what he should do with the CIA, except abolish it, but in the world of the present, his proposals on torture and Guantanamo are small but important reforms.

I know it sounds Orwellian to support “the reform of torture” but I do. I know that some who propose this just want to stabilize the empire or feel that torture is “counterproductive.” But maybe, just maybe, it will prevent some real people, some real prisoners of war, some real Iraqis, Afghanis, some real Blacks and Latinos from not being tortured, or not being tortured as much. And in a world I can’t control I don’t dismiss this reform and hope it can be carried out.

I am an organizer. I try to understand what I think from practice, that is how my mind works. I was in prison for a year and a half. I did 30 days in solitary. I was in prison because of my participation in militant demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. So, I can tell you, a year in a half in prison is worse than 12 months. Getting out on parole would have been a very good reform for me but my parole board did not think so, and denied me twice. They did not like my anti-war actions and wanted to teach me a lesson. So, I’m talking to my fellow prisoners, who call guys like me, “short-timers.” They told me, that they were sorry I had to do a year and a half but it sure beats 25 years to life. We understood the small but significant gradations of reform. Being in the general population able to play basketball and lift weights and have your own cell is a lot better than being in a dorm with 20 prisoners half of whom are great and some of whom are crazy. It is a lot better than 23 hour lock ups in tiny cells, with the lights on, food like shit, and screws who wake up in the morning to drive you insane if they can succeed. Some guards, screws, are a lot better than others. Some are actually decent, many are cruel, and some are downright sadistic psychos. So pardon me if I still believe in reforms, for those who don’t I suggest you remember that the next time they are torturing you, I want you to repeat, “Shit, I don’t care, you’re all imperialists anyway, why would I want the CIA to eliminate torture.”

As an organizer you learn from the people. If you care about those who live in slum housing, you work for rent control, or just to force the damn landlord to provide some heat. It is not enough, it is a building block of a revolution, and yet it can be a critical part of a revolution. You have to talk to folks about how their experience is part of their race and class experience, how slum landlords are part of a broader capitalist system, how the landless in Brazil and those fighting for water rights in indigenous communities are their allies, and yes, how the Democrats are not. But you can’t argue, “Look, this candidate wants to institute rent control and this one wants to evict you but it doesn’t matter ‘cause they’re both imperialist pigs.” Well, you can argue that, but I can assure you you’ll be a pretty lonely. By my definition, “an organizer never walks alone.” If you can’t relate to the people’s needs you will never be a successful organizer.

So, I understand the limits of Obama, and try to build a movement to his Left. I can understand Obama’s dilemmas but I can’t understand or tolerate his liberal pundits and apologists who try to explain reality to us, as if they themselves have no role in changing it. “The mayor, the senator, the president, is under a lot of pressure from the Right, so let me explain why we can’t do what you want.” Soon you come to see that former leftists in the Department of Apologia come to see you and the movement as the main danger. They keep talking about pressure from the Right as inevitable and legitimate, but they hate pressure from the Left and often are in bed with the Right more than they are its captives. Former leftists in power can often be your worst adversaries. I prefer those who have no illusions or pretensions that they are on your side. In that sense, I often get along far better with corporate capitalists than Democrats. The capitalists at General Motors, Trailways, Texaco and many others I have boycotted and negotiated with are less pretentious and more right to the point. They want to make a profit, and you have a movement. They just want to know, “What can you do to hurt me and what do you want?” Sometimes you even can find some level of communication with them. As with the mafia, they explain, “I may be discriminating or polluting the environment or trying to close down your plant and lay you off, but it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”

I believe in the role of people and the role of systems. I hold Barack Obama responsible for his actions and the system responsible for setting the parameters of his actions and the movement, if and when it reconstructs itself, as responsible for changing the system, putting pressure on the system, getting people in power to do what they don’t want to do because we are holding some cards.

So, I wish Barack Obama well. As my grandmother Sarah would say, “You wouldn’t want his problems, you have enough of your own.” He is trying to reform the system; I am trying to reform it myself in more radical ways. I do not have the hubris to say I want to overthrow it, but I would if I could. But right now I don’t know how that is possible, and I am more than happy to believe we in the U.S. can bring revolutionary ideas and radical movements into the scope of history and fight to stop the excesses of the empire as forces far more powerful than us in the Third World take on the heavier lifting of a more frontal battle. Our job is to push the empire as far as we can from the inside; the Third World does it from the outside. (This is my inside/outside strategy.)

Obama is trying to fight for civil rights, for environmental progress, for civil liberties. He is trying to reform a system that he understands too well is evil (thus, Michelle Obama’s wonderful slip of the tongue, “For the first time I am proud of this country.”) Now in fact I was proud of Nat Turner and Sitting Bull, proud of the slave revolts and the abolitionists proud of the Communist Party the New Left, proud of SNCC, and CORE and the Panthers, and yes, proud of George McGovern, one of the true decent liberals. And I put Obama in that camp, at least I can hope. But I do not want his job nor was I elected to carry it out.

He is the first Black president of the United States. He is a proud Black man who did not have to tell the white folks he was Black, they understood too well, as did 98% of the Black community that voted for him. He has his work cut out for him, and we have our work cut out for us. Obama is an ally and an opponent. (It is contradictory but that is why Mao wrote On Contradiction.) It is a pleasure to work to support him against the Right and put big time pressure on him from the Left. Welcome to the system, brother. I wish you all the luck in the world because my people need you to succeed, as we need to succeed on our own terms.

Eric Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers. He is working on his next book, The Twenty Five Qualities of the Successful Organizer: A Journey in Transformative Organizing. He is a co-host of Voices from the Frontlines, KPFK Pacifica, Los Angeles, 90.7 FM, Mondays at 4-5 PM PST, and streaming live on the web at Read more On "Obama’s Plan to Reform the CIA—Who’s In Charge Here Anyway?"!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Obama vs. McKinney: The Black Commentator, Bob Lederer, Ronald B. McGuire

Debate, Criticisms from McKinney Supporters about Ten Reasons Why We Should Turn Out the Vote for Obama

McKinney supporters have been reading and responding to my article.

Debating Obama vs McKinney

The Black Commentator
has released a special election edition of Ten Reasons along with many good pieces analyzing election issues and choices. One exchange of comments about my article at Black Commentator Readers Corner Blog reflects the debate between McKinney supporters:

Another Cynthia said…
I DO respect the people who will vote for Mr. Obama for the reasons outlined in [Eric Mann’s] thoughtful and well-written article, but after much soul-searching and consideration of all the "variables", I simply cannot go into that voting booth on Tuesday and say that what I want is more of what the democrats are offering.

I will be voting for Cynthia McKinney. My conscience just will not let me do otherwise, because peace through economic justice is my goal.

USAmerica's uber-glorification of militarism and competition in the name of unlimited personal fortunes for a fraction few, is laying waste to our children's future and indeed to the future of this planet and every species on it, and I cannot vote for a candidate who doesn't see that and say that.

Anonymous said…
For another Cynthia - "I cannot vote for a candidate who doesn't see that and say that."

Perhaps part of the reason we hope for Mr. Obama is that he has given some reason to believe that he sees the problems and understands that he cannot be elected in this country if he articulates the problems and his solutions.

I love Ms. McKinney (actually donated once), but I know my vote to her might as well not be cast for all the change that will come from it.

As I said earlier, maybe taking down the theocratic GOP and some of the Democratic Party will deflate the process and allow room for other parties. But Green won't grow without plenty of care and attention, and it's not going to get that under the 2-party system.

Vote for McKinney Only Where Obama Is Safe

Many McKinney supporters also seem to be weighing this option. In a statement that people are forwarding and posting, Bob Lederer weighs my Ten Reasons alongside Ronald B. McGuire’s piece “McKinney or Obama? Don't Waste Your Vote!”:

I should preface this by saying I have never had any faith in national (as opposed to local) electoral politics as being a significant arena for radical struggle -- if anything it has often been a distraction at best and co-optation at worst. That said, I am attaching two messages concerning the election, both of which make a lot of valid points that are food for thought as we approach Election Day. As to the second message, by Eric Mann, I certainly respect the views of him and others who see the priority of pushing for Obama to get the highest possible vote and the value of inspiring many progressive young people, especially Black people, to become voters and have raised expectations for social change. But ultimately I am persuaded (as argued in the first message below by Ron McGuire) to cast my vote for Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente -- they have the most radical politics of anyone running today....

The only reason I feel comfortable NOT giving Obama another vote to defeat McCain -- who I think is far more dangerous for all the reasons Eric Mann lays out below -- is because I live in a state (New York) where it is overwhelmingly clear that Obama will win anyway.

McGuire's piece makes similar points to Amee Chew's article, Support Obama, Vote McKinney? Not a contradiction at the Black Agenda Report.

Read more On "Obama vs. McKinney: The Black Commentator, Bob Lederer, Ronald B. McGuire"!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Part One: Responding to Criticisms of Ten Reasons We Should Work To Elect Obama (from Kasama and others)

First let me thank everyone who has been reading, discussing, forwarding, blogging and emailing me about Ten Reasons We Should Turn Out the Vote for Barack Obama. You have been very generous to me and my article. Let’s keep the dialogue and debate going.

There has been a very engaged discussion on my article at Mike Ely's blog Kasama (already 54 comments’ worth), a debate on both sides of my position that captures many of the views and criticisms of others.

I have posted a long response to that discussion over there--"Aren't We In An Anti-Racist United Front?"--but I also had a couple of key points that I wanted to make here:

Trying to make our disagreements clearer, let's think about the U.S. Civil War from an anti-racist, anti-capitalist point of view. By the logic of some Kasama comments (see excerpts below) as well as many similar critiques I have received through other venues, the Left should have sat out the Civil War on the grounds that the North was racist capitalist. Lincoln was a half-hearted opponent of slavery, in fact he said his only goal was to restore “the Union” and the war was not an anti-slavery war. On the other hand, there were the fascist racists of the South, the slave owners--remember the North did not allow slavery. Now, if you can’t understand the difference between “wage slavery” where a Black man still faced racism, brutality, in the North but was not legally property and had the “right” to walk away from an oppressive job even it meant walking into unemployment--versus the real slavery where Black people were property and were raped, castrated, and whipped at the whim of their owners, then I don’t know if we have a moral baseline from which to have this debate. The fight between northern capital and southern feudalism tied to England was not a war the Blacks led, but a war among the whites that allowed 4 million slaves to be freed, and at least 100,000 of them to be armed by the union army. Were the Black slaves in an alliance with the North and northern capitalism? Hell, yes, they were.

So, perhaps one of our differences is how much we are rooted in a race theory of US politics: the view, that I hold, that the national question inside the US and outside is the primary contradiction in the world—-between US imperialism on one side, and the oppressed races, peoples, and nations in the world on the other. As such, I see the fight between Obama and McCain, not (just) because Obama is Black and McCain is white, but because Obama is a Black civil rights moderate and McCain is a virulent fascist racist and I see that as more than enough of a reason for the Left to be clear as to “which side are you on."

By the way, if you follow this logic from some of my critics, Karl Marx must have been a liberal sell-out who had a lot of illusions about capitalism. Marx put all his efforts to supporting the victory of northern capital over the feudal racist South. He said that “white labor can never be free if Black labor is in chains.” He organized the International Workingmen’s Association to actively oppose Britain’s entry into the civil war on the side of the South and asked workers of the world to support the Union cause and called for an international united front between the fledgling communist movement and northern capital and the freeing of the slaves. His "blog" must have caught hell from some of the “ultralefts” of his day.

On the other hand, my article, Ten Reasons We Should Turn Out the Vote for Barack Obama, goes into great detail about the real differences with, and dangers of an Obama presidency. If you have listened to Joe Biden he is an aggressive imperialist. He talked about a more “muscular presidency” like Kennedy, which means that Obama may take pre-emptive action against Afghanistan, may provoke a showdown, will definitely send more troops to destroy Afghanistan. As I said in my article, he plans an occupation strategy for Iraq. As such, it is not a question of should the left challenge Obama when he is elected. Of course we will and we will have to do so early and often. But I think the anti-war movement will be strengthened by an Obama victory, for his vague promise of “getting out of Iraq” will be tested, his talk about “tough diplomacy” versus unilateral military engagement will be tested. For after “tough diplomacy” what if Iran and others refuse to abide by US threats--will military action follow? I am well aware that we live in US imperialism, my difference is that I can find real victories and defeats within its political machinations, not as a bystander, but as someone with a base, a movement, that has to figure out our unity and struggle with many forces in society.

If it seems contradictory that I both welcome and fear, both welcome and also know we will have to struggle with an Obama presidency, welcome Obama’s positive contributions but also know very well his many conservative and reactionary policies--then, that is contradictory for sure. A guy I would recommend, Mao Tse-tung wrote about this point of view. He called it “On Contradiction.”

I welcome continued discussion. In future blog posts, I plan to make responses to different types and angles of critique and feedback that I have been getting.

Finally, here are excerpts from the comments posted at Mike Ely's blog Kasama that struck me and guided my response...

· Jose M Says:
October 24, 2008 at 12:57 pm
I appreciate this post so very much.
It is eye opening to me to see that the position I occasionally held (due to my ignorance) was a typical abstentionist one.
Now I see that this election has much higher stakes and deeper meaning than people like the RCP like to give it.
This isnt to mean that I will vote for Obama. I will not. But as Zerohour and I discussed, it is something that has made me interrogate why as communists we are opposed to Obama. And it is a question I have no clear answer for.
So I would like there to be a lot of debate over this, and I want to hear more from people like TNL and then Jed and Mike.
If there is one thing that I think this article is correct on, it is that there is the POSSIBILITY of the creation of more space for radical organizing if Obama gets elected. And I think that things will become much harder if McCain gets elected .
And my position is not as simple as “voting for the lesser evil.” Like I said, I wont vote, and I dont support Obama,even if he is less evil than McCain. They are both imperialist politicians who will continue this system’s horrors here and around the world. On that we should not be deluded. But I do think, as others have noted, that it is a statement against white supremacy in which communists can build on using our own independent program, allied with obama supporters.


LS Says:
October 24, 2008 at 1:01 pm
I highly respect Eric Mann and the amazing organizing work he has done over decades. Particularly given who it’s coming from, this is a significant and powerful piece. I appreciate your printing it here, despite key Kasama folks having previously expressed sharp disagreement with such a perspective.
I am in overall agreement with the sentiment of this piece - that we need to vote for Obama to strike as strong a blow as possible against white supremacy (among other reasons, but that is central at this point).
But I don’t agree with all of Mann’s formulations.
My main criticism politically is that he characterizes the left’s relationship with Obama as a ‘united front.’ I don’t think that’s right. Maybe Mann doesn’t mean to use the term ‘united front’ in a precise Marxist sense, but more in a ‘popular usage’ kind of way. But I’ll assume he meant it in a more precise way.

But I think it’s fundamentally wrong (in Marxist terms) to think we can form a united front with the political head of U.S. imperialism. We don’t live in an oppressed nation where we can ally with significant sections of the bourgeoisie to advance the socialist revolution. While there will be some bourgeois forces in the oppressed nationality movements that can be won to the broad united front for revolution in the U.S., we should be clear that that’s not what a President Obama would represent. He does not come out of the Black freedom movement and does not represent that movement, even as a bourgeois force within that movement.
Mann refers to “a united front alliance with Obama and with his millions of supporters…” It is precisely the millions of his supporters that are essential to win to the united front against imperialism to make socialist revolution in the U.S. But we shouldn’t have illusions that Obama will assist the left in bringing his base into the united front against imperialism. On the contrary, he is trying to do the opposite - bring his base more solidly under the leadership of the imperialists (not an easy job given the depth of the systemic crises going on).


nando Says:
October 24, 2008 at 1:11 pm

The best way to create “space” for radical organizing is to take up energetic work as revolutionaries and (as Mao says) “create favorable conditions through struggle.”
We have often discussed Mao’s concept of “hasten and await.” There are objective changes that we must “await” — that turn the objective conditions more favorable to reaching millions. But we can also hasten those openings by building and consolidating revolutionary forces, identifying the ways of conducting revolutionary work under non-revolutinary conditions, and struggling to win people away from the illusions and destructions of tailing the liberals.


Name (required) Says:
October 24, 2008 at 4:06 pm
The biggest problem with this piece is that it is arguing for an all consuming push to elect a man who is essentially already elected. At what point, after having assured that the evil John McCain won’t gain the presidency, does your activity and the effect of a massive win for Obama ACTUALLY LEGITIMIZE THE VERY IMPERIALIST POLITICS YOU CLAIM TO OPPOSE!!!


RW Harvey Says:
October 25, 2008 at 11:38 am
Regarding electing Obama, I first turn to a psychological process called “displacement”: “the unconscious transfer of instinct energy from its original object to a new object. [This displacement] brings about a transfer to that new object of emotional interests and attitudes that were once appropriate to the old object.”


Lastly, Mann’s essay is particularly dangerous in that it takes the lesser of two evils and flips it to make Obama v. McCain appear as if it is the choice between Good and Evil, thereby adding the ever-appealing energies of righteousness and zealotry to voting for Obama. If we forget who is behind Obama and who Obama serves we are in for the greatest sucker-punch that bourgeois democracy has delivered since FDR.


leslie1917 Says:
October 26, 2008 at 1:38 pm

I live in a so-called battleground state, and I’m going to vote for Obama…. But I’m not campaigning, driving people to the polls,handing out literature, etc. for Obama because I think I and other revolutionary minded people have more important things to do, especially since so many things cry out to be done, and we have so little time to do them. Among these more important things are:
(a) exposing Obama’s approach to international issues (e.g., Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine, the lopsided distribution of the world’s resources) as exemplifying US imperialism at its most vicious and (as opposed to Bush, McCain, Palin) perhaps smartest
(b) exposing Obama’s approach to the economic crisis as one whose overwhelming concern is with the well-being of finance capital
(c) exposing why electoral politics in the U.S. (including the Obama campaign) are primarily a way of limiting, diverting, sabotaging, and befuddling the struggle for large-scale change in the U.S., to say nothing of revolutionary struggle
(d) trying to help build generally revolutionary struggles and organization, and spending time campaigning for Obama sure as hell won’t do that.


TellNoLies Says:
October 26, 2008 at 3:57 pm

This is, to take a touchy moment from the RCP’s history, something of a Boston busing moment, where a determination to distance oneself from anything having to do with the existing capitalist state blinded some sincere revolutionaries to the “which side are you on” nature of a fight against racism and called into question their leadership in the eyes of the majority of revolutionary minded people from there on out.


Linda D. Says:
October 26, 2008 at 11:34 pm

It is not so much that people here are so completely enamored with Obama, although many can identify with him, but their hatred for U.S. imperialism is steadfast. However, the Obama phenomena has not been lost on a wide array of mexicanos. A day doesn’t go by without someone asking me if I think a Black man could ever be elected prez. in racist Amerikkka, and what would that mean for Latinos, the treatment of immigrants, etc.


red road Says:
October 27, 2008 at 6:56 pm
Have serious/revolutionary Marxists, Leninists, Maoists, or any other trend in any imperialist country ever had a full consideration of bourgeois elections, their effect on the proletarian class struggle and the struggles of other revolutionary classes, and how serious revolutionary political education, training and struggles should be conducted in the course of bourgeois election campaigns?


TellNoLies Says:
October 29, 2008 at 3:37 pm
Jose M asks some questions:
“What will the vote of all the radicals and communists for obama accomplish?”
A little more, since they are a bunch of drops in the bucket. But the same principle applies.
“As I said earlier, we have no traction to make any sort of difference, even if what you were saying about Gramsci’s theories applying to us were true (which im not saying they arent).”
This is of course true of ANY path we choose. What difference will our attendance at an event about Nepal make? Or a demonstration against police brutality? At our present level of unity and organization everything we do is mainly modelling to ourselves and the small number of people around us paying attention what we think should be done on a larger scale.


Carl Davidson Says:
October 29, 2008 at 5:02 pm
It’s still worth discussing this here. But now the framework is different. It’s way past time for winning any of you or your supporters to this struggle, or even just to vote.
You’re either here or you’re not.
But it might be a good time to compare and contrast: What have those who stayed out of this battle built and gained in this period, as opposed to those who took a different approach?
Read more On "Part One: Responding to Criticisms of Ten Reasons We Should Work To Elect Obama (from Kasama and others)"!