“I’ve lived long enough to see the triumph of zealots and absolutists, to watch money swallow politics, to witness the rise of the corporate state. I didn’t drift. I moved left just by standing still.”
–Bill Moyers, journalist, populist and Baptist minister
It’s interesting how many year-end articles pronounced 2014 a really really REALLY bad year, and on the face of it, it surely was. It felt pretty good to put it behind us, but when we examine the facts, it’s only a title that’s been retired, isn’t it? Twenty-four hours don’t shift a political bias or archive a meme. A calendar change does not a beginning make, unless we collectively decide that is so.
So, here we are, just hours into a new year, and as always, launching something new requires a quick — or better, a close — look behind to see where we’re launching from. In last week’s column, I listed a number of the problems that challenged us last year, some becoming iconic like Flight 370, or historically defining, like Ferguson. Many simply fleshed out the list of outrages to which we’ve become lethargic, like school shootings, torture, political corruption, or made us weary like the wars that never seem to cease.
Still, it was the human cost that marked last year as frightful, and it was our lethargy that not only turned a blind eye but exacerbated the problems. If that is to change, it will be you and I who make that decision
Truly, 2014 was just one dreadful happening after another. Will Pitt wrote a piece enumerating the incidents, month by month, in which he declared that if there were awards for worst, 2014 would “have its very own wing” in the “Hall Of Fame Of Suck.” And yet, rarely reported, there was a lot of activity going on behind the media spin, creating waves that continue to turn this unwieldy ship of state, bit by bit, away from its deaf, dumb and highly remunerative love affair with oligarchy.
I’ll write about that in coming weeks, but how we got here, once again makes the process of discovery evident. That must not be missed, because we will see — we will need — more of the same in order to break the hold of our conditioned slumber. We have stragglers, my dears — oh yes, we do, still stuck in dogma and nationalism and paranoia, requiring more jolts to our shaky system, more sounding alarms.
I have no doubt we’ll get our share of even more illustrative cultural and political outrages to bolster our intent to turn government leadership back toward public service this year and next. For example, even before the Republicans took the gavel as the new majority, their House majority whip Steve Scalise — the third-most-powerful man in the House of Representatives — has had to face his history of quietly overt racism, acceptable in his state and his party..
Early in his career, Scalise spoke at a “white pride” event sponsored by the Klu Klux Klan. On the defensive now, Boehner has defended him as a young, naïve state legislator who would talk to anyone who gave him the time, but digging deeper, we find that Scalise was not just friendly with former Klan leader David Duke and his organization, but in his own words, shares Duke’s values. The truth of that is evident in his voting record in the state of Louisiana.
Various articles have come out from the left-leaners, saying the rise of Scalise within the Republican party defines that party’s values, and I’m hard pressed to argue. Although it’s evident that most conservatives do not see themselves as racist, it’s also true that they do not argue for civil liberties except within their own self-serving framework. If there is a clear message to be gleaned from 2014, it is to take a moment to see not just what is being argued by whom, but what is NOT being argued, especially by those in authority.
In New York City, we’ve been given a very clear illustration of how authority protects its own and covers its ass, not just in public perception, but legally as well. We accept, lethargically, that kind of behavior from politicians, physicians, banksters and corporations, even though the first two are charged with pursuing the best interests of the public. Now, we’ve had a potent wake-up call, thanks to Ferguson, about authority gone jack-booted with the militarization of the police force, and we’re not all that comfortable with the concept.
The tragic assassination of two NYC police officers in these last few days — framed as revenge killing for dead black youth, but more accurately described as the final act of an African-American career criminal run amok — was met with an outpouring of grief and outrage from the public. It was politicized, however, by those who agreed with FOX-friendly Rudy Guiliani, who suggested that New York City’s progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, should apologize to the police force for comments he made about the problem of targeting and excess force against people of color, shortly after the grand jury refused to indict in the death of Eric Garner.
This father of two bi-racial children would not have been true to his own had he not been candid when he said, “We all want to look up to figures of authority. And everyone knows the police protect us, but there’s that fear that there could be that one moment of misunderstanding with a young man of color and that young man may never come back.” Typical of those who can tolerate not one moment of criticism or introspection, the head of the police union came completely unglued and accused the mayor of throwing cops under the bus.
It was during this controversy that the two police officers were gunned down in their cruiser. The upshot was a moment in which many of us shook our heads in dismay, an us/them smack-down that served only to reinforce the chasm between those who take seriously their authority to “serve and protect” and those to whom such power seems absolute: the police turned their backs on de Blasio as he visited the hospital and again, as he delivered the eulogy for Officer Rafael Ramos. Amy Davidson, in her New Yorker article, argued that the first can be forgiven, due to emotion — but not the second, if we are to overcome our differences. Since then, planes have flown over the city with pointed messages to the mayor, reinforcing the notion that he has blood on his hands and is no friend to law enforcement. Anyone with an imagination should consider just how dangerous this situation could become.
Undaunted, de Blasio spells out the racial challenges very specifically in this clip, along with his desire to remedy the problem within his own city. Additionally, he defines the problem with a contentious police force in typically candid but even-handed terms, terms one cannot misunderstand — unless by intent. And that is where we find ourselves with so much of our political discourse, out-pictured by a similarly polarized government.
On the day of the funeral of Officer Rafael Ramos, the church was filled to capacity, the excess of police personnel standing in the streets, watching the events on giant screens. Hundreds of city cops greeted Bill de Blasio’s eulogy by turning their backs in protest. To some of us, looking on, I wondered if there were any of them — standing out in the cold, backs turned — who actually wanted to turn around, aware that life is nuanced, that there are bad cops out there just as there are bad citizens, that black and white describes a cop car and a nun’s habit, not a workable thought process. Which among them, I wondered, were gritting their teeth, afraid to turn around and support an empathetic and realistic assessment of our cultural problems with authority.
And again, we can clearly see what is NOT being said or supported in the inability of so many of our police organizations to ‘police’ within their own ranks, or to allow those of different mind — I’m thinking of the courageous black cop who wrote the op/ed saying he was afraid of the police when he was out of uniform — to take an ethical stand. We can’t have this both ways. Authority for authority’s sake is not democratic principle. Over at Hullabaloo, Digby posted this cartoon. As ever, a picture can save 10,000 words, and this one illustrates the problem with absolutes, the hypocrisy of those who either can’t see the forest for the trees or can, but continue to capitalize on the cheat for their own gain.
We can be assured that there are thousands of policeman around this country who take their oath seriously and work hard to remember that the public they serve isn’t a pool of potential criminals looking to do violence, but a group of people who look to them for protection. And I suspect there are many who find the daily grind of make-work in order to fill a city’s coffers distasteful activity, just as politicians must tire of spending half of their time shaking down contributors for money.
Over at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi wrote an interesting piece on the cops staging a ‘slowdown,’ just as the New Year’s hoopla began. Stinging under not just one critical New York Times op/ed for their collective short-sightedness, but two — back to back — the force decided not to deal with any of the piddly little tickets and minor arrests considered revenue; “such arrests have dropped off a staggering 94 percent, with overall arrests plunging 66 percent.” Taibbi posits that this may be the first time in a very long time that the New York City police force is focused on actual criminality, rather than the for-profit harassment that has become a signature issue in cities across the nation. The reporter proposes that this IS their job, not the nit-picking and ticket-issuing, and it should take center stage in our conversation about police reform.
I read recently, in regard to President Obama’s growing willingness to use his authority — Pub whining be damned — that he does best when up against an enemy. The same has been said for this nation, any nation. This is supposedly the human nature we are heir to and have so much trouble rising above. Thick-headed humanity responds best to the carrot/stick, reward/punishment option, so they say, although we very seldom try any other policy, so it’s difficult to judge what we’d do in other circumstances. We have been schooled in these last decades to listen only to those voices that agree with us, to immediately take umbrage, throw retorts and insults (exacerbated when done anonymously, in cyberspace, early on).
It’s also safe to say that in the decades after the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK, the majority of us left protests behind, judging them activities hazardous to our health and not entirely successful. But this is another century, another decade, and a new year, and the protests of our hearts that we’ve internalized are now beginning to become externalized. In Florida, for instance, cops who were attempting to arrest a couple of otherwise peaceful (and merely suspected) weed smokers found themselves surrounded by as many as 75 citizens, preventing them from accomplishing their mission. Police seem newly aware that many of us are equipped with phones that can capture the moment on film, providing sharp contrast to their version of events. Cop-cams are coming at the insistence of the public. There is a collective consciousness at work that is — in a word — increasingly empathetic to those who have been treated unfairly and unjustly.
You remember the “empathy” dialogues, brought to light when Barack Obama was looking for a Supreme Court candidate and eventually chose Sonia Sotomayor? He wanted someone in place who could show compassion within the law, putting herself in someone else’s shoes. The debate was fast and furious, of course, with wee Senator Lindsay Graham declaring such a desire an “absurd, dangerous standard.” What to make of such a statement?
Does that mean that compassion and empathy are not fit emotions for this nation? Does it mean the Republicans want no part of such “soft-hearted” notions, even though it appears their own Supremes felt quite moved by the predicament of poor Hobby Lobby? On a larger level does that mean that all conservatives think the cops are the thin blue line between civil (white) behavior and the breakdown of American (non-white) culture? Does the defense of Steve Scalise in leading his party define Republicans as tolerant of racism in the defense of white power? While I will leave the answers to you, I refuse to be one of those defined by what I DON’T say when I’m staring it in the face.
Similar problems exist within the Dem party, of course, although their sins are less cultural than financial. Yes, Dems will gather where the lobbyists water, to get their share, but they seldom want for empathy. And in that regard, here’s a clip that speaks to empathy as the evolution of relationships leading to social change. Interesting think-piece to accompany a Saturday read, if you have the time.
We are defined, not just individually but collectively, by what we tolerate. While we must cast that as a huge net from the human standpoint — trying to regard differing heritage and culture with respect, and empathy for those who have chosen their own path, no matter how difficult — as a nation we must decide just how much fear-mongering, bullying and manipulation we will allow. With everything so evident, and a political year ahead that should leave no questions as to style, this is our opportunity to expand the bottom-up activism that’s changing the political topography.
Given the year just passed, it’s difficult to imagine that progress is actually happening, I know. Like now retired, and soon to be missed Bill Moyers, the political world shifted beneath my feet — and perhaps yours — even as I stood still. I haven’t changed my politics since I was a kid marching in the Berkeley streets for free speech, and yet my brand of populism is considered radical. And may I just say, in that regard — radical, my ASS! What George W. Bush did was radical, but we’d been so conditioned to think of ourselves in Ramboesque super-power terms, we didn’t even notice. Coming to awareness of that debilitating level of nationalism took a long while and a lot of failure in the eyes of the world, starting — didn’t it just!– with George W.
I remember during the Bush years when I ruefully considered myself a Chicken Little, peeping and squawking into cyberspace with little hope of changing barnyard dynamics, yet there were thousands just like me, and look where we are today. If Cheney has devout followers, I suspect they keep their heads down. If Jeb runs in 2016, I anticipate a barrage of Bush-fatigue will hit the fan (to which I will happily contribute). And when the public becomes aware that the Republicans — now in charge of the whole enchilada — have neither the skill nor intention to make life better for We, the People, I have no doubt that the Warren wing of the Democratic party, populism, and support for civil rights and collective bargaining will begin a swift uptick in popularity.
Eric made the astrology evident in the subscription article this week: as the final Pluto/Uranus aspect finishes its run, the commotion it provoked will not fade away. The transit will have fallout that lasts for years, and with the taste of destruction and rebellion it provided filling our senses, ” … we get to ride the toboggan down the slippery slope.” Although the future comes with no guarantees, even the arbiter of liberal reality, Truth Out, has wondered, out loud, if this is the year that everything breaks differently, based on reports of local activism and successful cultural projects, not to mention enthusiastic contributions to the organizations that continue to fight for political, cultural and ecological progress.
I’m putting all my chips into the pot that 2014 was the year when we got a gut-full of inaction but blamed politics, rather than politicians. That lesson should be obvious quickly enough. I’m betting that those who are newly awake will join in to make changes closer to home, not just in terms of local authority but environmental integrity, food choice and consumption, the political use of our pocket books and the various ways we can protest, and that’s just the short list.
In that regard, I’ve decided to post some kind of activist opportunity each week so that we have positive options at our fingertips. If you have favorite organizations you support and want them included, please send info to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. There are old standbys and new groups birthing themselves daily; help me keep up!
I’m betting that 2014 was the messenger rather than the message, that everything shifting beneath our feet allowed hidden, unexamined information to rise to the surface for further scrutiny. This is shaping up to be the year when we’ll finally be able to see what we’re looking at. I trust that it will be new awareness, fresh experience, and a newly energized human response that will create 2015 as the year when hope, clearly defined by evidence, finally arrives.