politics is to want something

tirsdag, juli 25, 2006

to the euston station.... the left and universal human rights

The left has often found it difficult to resist the notion that our enemy’s enemies are our friends. From the defense in some parts of the left of every move the Soviet Union made, to the 60’s fetishization of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, to the softer mistake of lifting Hugo Chavez to sainthood, we often seem to believe that any force which opposes the United States must be a good thing. Thankfully, most of us have not made this mistake in the current “war on terror”. This isn't true for everyone, of course. For example, the always overrated Naomi Klein let her enthousiasm for brown people with guns get the better of her when she wrote a much-attacked celebration of the Mahdi Army in Iraq. She found a way to triangulate around the simple fact that a victory for the Iraqi "resistance" would lead to the repeal of most of the Iraqi people's hard-won gains for women, workers and intellectual freedom.
Similarly, just as some Zionists employ a double standard about Israeli vs. Palestinian violence, there are those in the American left who simply reverse this double standard. Suicide bombings are regrettable, but the “real” problem is Israeli military action. Zionism is racism, but the rampant and disgusting anti-Semitism among Muslims and Arabs is understandable. In my view, they are both “the real problem”.
It is understandable that we would want to support resistance movements opposing occupations and atrocities committed with our tax dollars, but not all resistance movements are born equal. I am no pacifist, and believe that all people have the right to self-defense, even military. However, just as we would be critical of Israel’s choices in defense of its nationhood, so, too should we keep our wits about us when analyzing the motivations, behavior, ideology and strategies of movements opposing U.S. or Israeli policy in the Middle East.
That’s why I lost all respect for George Galloway after his recent speech at a march in London opposing Israeli terror-bombings of Gaza and Lebanon. You may remember Galloway, the articulate British MP who spoke to Congress last year, defending himself from allegations of aiding terrorism, and told them to stick it. He became a brief celebrity among liberals and progressives here, as we had not heard an elected Democrat speak forcefully about anything in so long. Galloway’s always been a bit nutty, but he jumped the goddamn shark when he exclaimed at the March that ''I am here to glorify the resistance, Hezbollah. I am here to glorify their leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah''. That was simply indefensible, especially given that the city of London is still recovering from a series of home-grown terror attacks which killed scores of working-class people.
As this sort of nonsense has gained ground in parts of the UK left, a group of intellectuals, activists and bloggers have issued a statement of principles known as the Euston Manifesto. Essentially an appeal for a renewed commitment to fundamental human rights, the document criticizes both anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, as well as the strange sympathy some on the left have toward Islamist movements. The Manifesto has been criticized for being waffly on the Iraq war, (in truth it is mostly silent on the issue, as authors are split on the question), and has been characterized as a right-wing document. Read it, and decide for yourself. Personally, I see the statement, which has been signed by a number of prominent American social democratic thinkers, as an important corrective to some of the more dangerously simplistic and authoritarian tendencies on the left. It may sound strange, but we do need to lay out a clear statement of principles regarding universal human rights. The real world is complex, and, contrary to George Bush’s bedtime stories, it is not divided clearly into good guys and bad guys. People living under repressive regimes must make difficult choices: however, it is important not to degenerate into an absolute moral relativism of the left- supporting anything that is against U.S. power, for example, or which wraps itself in the rhetoric of socialism or anti-globalization, whatever those words actually mean.
We know that the right plays this game all the time. Any regime that is “anti-terrorist” or “anti-communist” can be apologized for: which is how both Pinochet and Saudi Arabia became our best friends. Let’s not make the same mistake.

See a clip of Galloway's speech here.

More of Naomi Klein's Judgements, "Bring Najaf to New York". I don't know about you, but I don't want to bring Najaf to New York.

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after blair

If the prevarications of the Clinton era have left center-to-progressive politics in noticeable disarray, the same can be said for the legacy of Clinton's cousin across the pond, Tony Blair. Blair's attempts to dismantle the Labour Party's ties to it's traditional bases in the trade unions and the new left may have created a considerable, but unstable electoral majority- just as Clinton's triangulation afforded the Democrats our only two-term president in my lifetime. As any hoverbike reader knows, I have serious doubts that the centrist strategy is good for our side in the long run. Life after Clinton has been hard for the Democrats, and the broad left, as we struggle to figure out what a progressive message, let alone progressive governance, looks like in the twenty-first century.
Blair's inevitable departure as Party Leader (and Prime Minister) is setting the stage for a political battle that, mirroring the 2004 Presidential Primary, will be a referendum on the meaning and consequences of the New Labour project. The heir apparent, Chancellor Gordon Brown, represents the segment of the party which is more traditional (and progressive) than the hard-core of New Labor, but which has gone along with Blair's rightward drift for the sake of victory and party unity. Most analysts believe that a Labor Party under Brown will continue the generally centrist approach of the current government, while strengthening slightly the commitment to the welfare state, trade union rights and a social justice-based trade policy. Even this difference, however, has been in question of late as Brown seems to be signaling his own shift to the right. Other voices (and potential Leader candidates) have emerged, however, positioning themselves as heralds of a more decisive shift to the left.
The darlings of the far-left blogosphere (think of them as somewhat akin to Dennis Kucinich) are John McDonnell and Michael Meacher. McDonnell has attracted attention and some key commitments from some of the grassroots. Meacher has nabbed some headlines for adding his voice to the 911 conspiracy chorus. Neither candidate is likely to win, given the powerful role that the party’s parliamentary group plays in selecting a leader. In the case of Meacher, that’s probably a blessing.
Other floating names include two cabinet members, John Denham of the Home office and Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary. As is the case here, the Iraq war looms heavily over the leadership question. The Party’s grassroots are strongly anti-war, and Blair’s continuing support for the Bush Administration’s policies has angered the base as well as a large percentage of Labour members of parliament. There have been high-profile cabinet resignations, as well as an upsurge in support for anti-war parties both to the left and the right of Labour. There is certainly an argument to be made, as it is here, that to be the leading party of the center-left, Labour must have a coherent, and progressive position on the war, while remaining credible and pragmatic on the overall question of national defense. That’s not an easy line to walk, but Blair’s lap-dog routine only works so long as the Conservatives don’t provide a viable alternative.
In Bush, the Republicans found just such an alternative. The new Conservative leader, David Cameron, is looking more and more like a serious challenger. In the next British election, Brown may well end up joining Al Gore as the failed continuation of the “Third Way” model. Only a strong and compelling reason to vote Labour will stop that from happening, and an internal challenge from the left of the party may be what it takes to force Brown to campaign on the Party’s strengths, instead of the Conservatives’ weaknesses. Let us just pray that he doesn’t put in a call to Kerry’s advisors.

To follow the Labout Party’s leadership saga, check out the daily, a fantastic new blog from which I blatantly stole much of the above analysis and information.

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torsdag, juli 13, 2006

is the democratic party possible? Part 1

Several weeks ago, Rick Jacobs, the pundit and activist behind the Courage Campaign, wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times in which he criticized the state Democratic Party for making endorsements in its own primary. In part, his missive seemed to stem from his support for wealthy centrist Steve Westly, who was thankfully beaten by the more progressive and labor-friendly Phil Angeledes for the gubernatorial nomination.
His essay, however, raises important and interesting questions for those of us who are attempting to create a political home inside the Democratic Party. Jacobs argues forcefully that the “party structure” is run by “insiders”, a group in which he seems to include not only elected officials, but unions, donors and large social movement organizations. Jacobs writes:

The last thing elected officials want is a party structure that could have a life of its own, European style, in which policy is actually decided by the party and in which ideas matter more than old connections. The state party's central committee, which meets annually, consists largely of well-intentioned, mostly older individuals who work year-round on political activities. Some go to monthly meetings where a parliamentarian drones on about Robert's Rules of Order and the proper way to make a motion. Most care deeply about the state but have at best a cursory connection to (California’s) 7 million Democrats. And they have no connection to the "decline to state" voters, who also may vote in primaries -- albeit only for initiatives and nonpartisan offices. In short, it is neither a disciplined structure nor a porous, welcoming organizing vehicle for activists outside of the club, or for the millions who vote.

It is refreshing to see a player of Jacobs’ stature recognize a key truth about Californian (and American) politics: the game is rigged to constrain the party grassroots. In fact, California is particularly bad. It’s electoral system, characterized by local non-partisan elections and an insane initiative process make it very difficult to develop the kind of “European style”, idea-based political culture that Jacobs mentions. Elected officials have, over the past twenty years, worked hard to further marginalize grassroots party structures, or to turn them into rubber stamps for their own decisions and endorsements. Add to this the nightmare of McCain-Feingold, which has further weakened political parties by making it harder for them to run coordinated campaigns at both the local and federal levels.

However, this is precicely why Jacobs’ thinking is so, well, whack. We all want to get rid of the smoky room, and empower grassroots activists to be more than shock troops for party elites. That’s not going to happen without the participation and buy-in of social movement actors (labor, feminists, Latinos, blacks, etc). These groups are often derided by Jacobs, Kos, and other Atari Democrats, who see the line of struggle in American politics as between the “netroots” and the “elites”. Would that it were.

Ironically, Jacobs’ main complaint, that the party endorses candidates in its own primary election, is exactly the sort of thing we need to facilitate the “Europeanization” of American party politics. For a more independent, grassroots-based party to exist, it must have some kind of independent power to intervene in politics as a coherent organization. Endorsing candidates in the primary which are “more” rather than “less” worthy of the Democratic Party mantle is a small but crucial power that the party can bring to bear. Otherwise, primary battles are nothing more than expensive beauty contests. The endorsement process facilitated a handful of promising (if ill-strategized) floor fights at this year’s state party convention. If there was no endorsement process, the Progressive Democrats wouldn’t have bothered to show up as part of their attempt to unseat pro-war Democratic congresswoman Jane Harmon.

Jacobs is also mistaken about the ability of “decline to state” voters, (people with no party identification) to vote in Democratic primaries. They can. That’s not a good thing. Campaigns like Westly’s, which sought to appeal to non-Democrats in order to win the Democratic nomination doesn’t build the strength of the party or lead to political contests where “ideas matter”. It pushes all politics to the so-called “center”, and begins the downward spiral of triangulation, poll-fetishization and compromise before the choices are even put to voters in the general election. We are very lucky that last year’s attempt to essentially do away with the primaries and just have two rounds of voting went down in flames.

All of this, of course, is part of an open question. It is quite possible that the structure of American political life is determinant enough that the electoral arena will always be personality-driven and expensive. Certainly, this is the direction that European politics is heading, though at a slower clip. I, for one, am still willing to fight for a democratic Democratic Party, and I know I am not alone. Jacobs and the Courage Campaign have an important role to play, along with the social movements, intellectuals, precinct captains, peace activists and neighborhood leaders. It would be nice if folks like Jacobs would put their money and time where their mouths are. Instead of dumping millions into a network of bloggers and point-and-click “activists”, the Courage Campaign should be identifying, training and supporting activists to –take over- the apparatus that Jacobs argues is geriatric and out of touch.

So, let us move forward, but be careful not to destroy the party even as we are building it.

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on the liberal blogosphere

I've been struggling to give birth to an essay about the "netroots" for weeks, and just found something quite close to what I wanted to write over at Clemens' blog. Check it out, cyberpoliticos!