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What Wisconsin is really all about

Posted on February 25th, 2011 in General by Robert Miller

Robert La Follette ("Fighting Bob")

Rarely have I heard those in the news media discuss what the massive demonstrations and crisis in Wisconsin are really all about. We have all heard about how public employees have it too good, how Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is faced with a difficult budget crisis, how the Governor is trying to bust unions, how private sector employees lack the benefits of state employees and thus public sector worker benefits must be significantly  reduced for better alignment with private sector jobs. In other words, we should all go down the staircase together. On and on it goes. But none of these explanations or the many others that have reached the level of news dialog, however briefly discussed,  get at the core of the mission of Governor Walker’s strategy and that of the Republican Party, now firmly intertwined with its Tea Party iteration. Walker has received strong support from organizations initiated by the Koch brothers and their intention is to eradicate unions and fight off regulatory changes. And, there are now more public than private sector labor unions jobs. How many times do you hear a governor listen and plan strategy with one of his donors as Walker did, with the fake call from editor Ian Murphy of the Buffalo Beast,  pretending to be David Koch. But how many times have you seen historic moments, like the confrontation going on in Wisconsin, to be treated as part of the “daily news” and not get examined for the long-term consequences of such action and whether this is healthy for future America? What’s going on in Wisconsin is nothing less than a confrontation with the future of our Democracy and we need to hear more than just the daily news reports on the size of the crowds and the simplistic implications of a change in the rules. Wisconsin is a potential game-breaker. We need to understand not only what it means for tomorrow, but what Wisconsin means for the long-term future of the country. The middle class of America was built by labor unions and their declining fortunes over the last thirty years have been paralleled by economic stagnation of the middle class and erosion of their security. How much of a progressive tax reform would it take to restore the public services Walker wants to strip away? There are serious journalistic flaws in the lack of news depth about the events tacking place in Wisconsin.

It is no irony that the strategy to attack union bargaining rights for public employees has ignited in Wisconsin, one of the states that began the march towards progressivism in the early part of the 20th century, highlighted by Senator Robert La Follette, one of the most progressive figures in American history: a victory for dissolving public union power in Wisconsin will be a major victory in a trophy state and will likely never be reversed. Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin started his own progressive newsletter, which was originally called La Follette’s Weekly. In the first publication he wrote, “In the course of every attempt to establish or develop free government, a struggle between Special Privilege and Equal Rights is inevitable. Our great industrial organizations [are] in control of politics, government, and natural resources. They manage conventions, make platforms, dictate legislation. They rule through the very men elected to represent them.” Have we come full circle? After his death in 1929, La Follette’s newsletter became The  Progressive. It is still  published today from Madison, Wisconsin. Given the rich progressive tradition of Wisconsin (yes, the state has always been a mixed bag because they also produced Senator Joe McCarthy), the Republicans are hoping that a Walker victory in Wisconsin against public employee union rights  will begin a domino surge that moves across the country, destroying unions in the process (One of Walker’s demands is that unionized employees vote each year to determine if they want to stay in a union); we know that other states are considering similar moves and that Indiana has already achieved that objective when the state ended collective bargaining rights for state employees in 2005. But, once again, evidence that the Republican Party is completely out of touch with public opinion comes from a recent NYT/CBS News poll revealing that the majority of Americans support labor unions. This has been true in every major poll going back into the 1930s when crude polling began.

If the Republicans can succeed in destroying bargaining rights for public employees, in the state that helped spawn a new progressive era in American politics, it will be a grand symbolic victory in the march towards the assault of the Republican Party and its Tea Party iteration on the very survival of the Democratic Party. One factor that keeps the Democratic Party in parity with Republicans in fund raising, is the existence of unions and the money and support they can raise and spend on candidates running for public office, particularly since the Supreme Court ruling of 2010, that allows unlimited resources from corporations and unions towards political campaigns. Of course unions, with union membership so depleted, cannot compete with corporate wealth to support campaigns, particularly when one considers the corporate behemoths spawned under Reaganism. The only way out of this conundrum is a constitutional amendment, denying corporations the same rights as citizens.

Unions serve in many capacities other than fund raising. They form the troops on the ground that get people out to vote and often man phone banks and fill other volunteer requests. They form PAC groups and provide transportation to the polls, as they often have the deep organizational knowledge of working class neighborhoods. But, union membership has been hit hard by the recession and it wasn’t doing too well before then. The plan to destroy the bargaining rights of public union employees, granted to them for most of the 20th century, is nothing more than another version of the  “Shock Doctrine” described by Naomi Klein; this is part of a general strategy to seize the initiative during a crisis, when people are down, and create further crippling of union support for what are typically Democratic candidates. The election of 2012 is shaping up to be the all time budget buster because of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on political campaigns. Walker’s attack on public unions is a direct attack on the ability of unions to exist, raise funds and energize support for the 2012 national and local elections. The actions that will set the stage for the all time election budget bonanza are happening right now in Wisconsin, with other states to follow. One can only hope that the events transpiring in Wisconsin today will serve to ignite a new flame of reactionary liberalism that needs to be energized–and now is not too soon. The first weekend after the initial sit-in in Madison, my son and I went to a rally for the Wisconsin public employees at the State Capital in St. Paul, where 2,000-3000 supporters gathered, filling the capital circle, while listening to labor and political leaders passionately address the plight of Wisconsin public employees and the demonstrations going on in Madison; that night the local news media briefly referred to the gathering as a “few hundred.” People are going to have to figure it out on their own what Madison means for the future health of our Democracy. The sudden anger with teachers, who are hardly overpaid, is merely another attack on unions and for the same reason. The passage of the antilabor law in Madison this past week, with virtually no impact on the budget is proof that the fight against the unions in Madison has nothing to do with the budgetary crisis of the state.


More Downgrading of the Reagan Presidency: his failure to act on AIDS

Posted on February 15th, 2011 in Health,Politics by Robert Miller

Since this is the year in which Ronald Reagan’s Presidency will be in the news, because this is the 100th anniversary year of his birth, we do not want to leave any stones unturned on his achievements, including the reversals of fortune. Last Night, though I found it difficult, I tied myself down to a chair and watched the 2 1/2 hour PBS show on Ronald Reagan’s Presidency. It was mostly about his foreign policy achievements and how he destroyed the Soviet Union through forming a good relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the destruction of the Soviet Union. There was virtually nothing about his domestic policies, the huge public debts he ran up and the justification for doing so–it was to “kill the beast,” to make the public debt so large that the New Deal would crumble of its own weight and the inability to finance its programs, like public welfare, Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. What the report did point out, was that Reagan was such an ideologue, that he believed what he wanted to believe, independent of the evidence. Though the facts said otherwise, he never fully accepted that his administration had traded arms for hostages during the Iran-Contra affair. Yet, in essence, that is what he ordered from the White House. He never imagined that the missile defense strategy he designed would never work, or that it would be perceived as another offensive weapons system, which started a new arms race now engaging China–the weaponization of space!

So, to set the record a little straighter on Reagan, my current candidate for the worst president in history, I can add the following to the litany of deficiencies about his presidency, things not covered in the PBS documentary. During Reagan’s first term, AIDS came of age and Reagan steadfastly refused to acknowledge the disease or have his government act on it, as they should have done because of the government’s responsibility for protecting the interests of public health. The Surgeon General of the United States was expressly forbidden to discuss AIDS.  It was not until late in his second term, when he learned that his friend Rock Hudson had died of AIDS, did he finally bring the word into his dialog. In the meantime, tens of thousands of Americans and perhaps millions of Africans could have had their lives saved with more timely information and better supportive care and education. Reagan also began the process of destroying the integrity of the Surgeon General’s office, so that he/she could not independently advocate things like the dangers of smoking or AIDS or anything else that was a political no-no for the Republicans. This trend, started under Reagan, would gain momentum under GW Bush who delayed the report on the health problems of second-hand smoke. For Reagan’s handling of the AIDS problem alone, we cannot dismiss the damage that was done to the health of this country, the lack of understanding about AIDS and the role that our government, driven by an ideological interpretation of disease, allowed Ronald Reagan  to suppress vital  information about AIDS because he thought that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality. They went so far as to suppress information on AIDS in Africa because that form of AIDS was not homosexual in origin, but rather heterosexually transmitted and such an admission would get the Reagan administration off message on AIDS: so the delusional tactic remained in place. You can read about Reagan’s AIDS policy history here.


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A new countdown to the end of the Cold War?

Posted on February 12th, 2011 in History,Politics by Robert Miller

Tahrir Square, 2/11/2011 (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

One-half of the Cold War ended dramatically when Mikhail Gorbachev let the Soviet Union disintegrate as he looked for peaceful alliances and a soft landing. But, the other half of the Cold War, our half, kept on going. America was unprepared for unilateral Soviet withdrawal from the Cold War. Russia was such a nice, easy enemy. But when they collapsed, we needed the Cold War to continue–it was our excuse for maintaining our hegemony over what we called “the free world.” The CIA had missed the clues of Soviet decline, despite the fact that signs of Soviet collapse had been present all along. Russia was a “superpower” in name only, granted by her huge nuclear arsenal. On the other hand, that was good enough for government work. The Soviets were a wonderful enemy to have: we simply don’t have enemies like that anymore. They were easy to deal with and easy to identify, as they all wore over-sized top coats.  We got used to enemies who don’t like democracy and when confronted with that possibility among our adversaries, we didn’t know whether to kiss them or throw stones. But, the Soviets were perfect for us; in fact we helped create and shape them into what we needed. They allowed us to build an unimaginable arsenal of weapons, as they responded in kind and they also occasionally invaded a Soviet block, whenever their citizens tried to reverse the boundaries created by WW II, thinking of course that we would support the revolutionaries looking for democracy and rejoining Europe. Think again–we were not for freedom and democracy, but rather dominance and stability.  The good thing about the Cold War was that, when it ended, when the Soviet Union threw in the towel, the borders were exactly the same as they had been at the close of WW II, with a divided Germany and a group of Eastern European buffer states that the Red Army had moved through on their way to defeat Hitler in Berlin. But the Cold War was not without very heavy costs. Not only did America keep remaking itself into an increasingly more militaristic country, but millions of lives were lost along the way, as America pursued wars in Korea and Vietnam, thinking at the time that we were fighting Russian expansionism. When huge enemy weapons caches were discovered during the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson assumed they would turn out to be made in the Soviet Union and provide proof of his belief that he was standing up to Soviet communism and aggression. So, he was surprised to learn that in fact those weapons were made in the USA–all stolen from arms shipments we sent to our soldiers and surrogates in Vietnam. Our enemies in Vietnam were number one, ourselves, and number two, a country of peasants that wanted to have a unified nation while formed by breaking the bonds of colonialism–pretty much the end of the story.

Many Americans mistakenly believed that, once the Cold War was over, we would get a big “peace dividend” because we didn’t have enemies anymore. Without enemies, what’s the point of having such a big military? Besides, the Pentagon was built during WW II and fabricated with non-reinforced concrete, because it was supposed to be torn down at the end of the war. So, why not tear it down now, forty five years later and save ourselves huge costs. Why not a peace dividend? After all, we are an island nation without natural enemies on either border, so why do we need a global defense structure? At least that’s what a few people thought. But the notion of a peace dividend was profoundly mistaken and naive. The purpose of the Cold War was to establish American hegemony, through a confrontation that we started with the Soviets only weeks after FDR died when Truman assumed leadership of the country. The end of the Cold War meant that, until we could find some new enemies, we would have to be the emperor with no clothes. The truth had to come out of course and those Americans who wanted to believe that we fought the Cold War to defend our liberties and freedoms and prevent tyranny by the Russians, needed to have their own political party to continue on with such beliefs and eventually, God granted that they should have the Tea Party. And so, they assembled under the fig leaf of hypocrisy and created a domestic enemy in the form of illegal and legal immigrants. As far as the foreign enemy is concerned, no need to worry. GW Bush was able to provide that with Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars and new enemies (we have never defined the enemy in Iraq, because we didn’t have one–that war was created by our lust for controlling more oil). Both of those wars are now much longer than WW II and there is no real indication that either one of them will soon be over. We may be thrown out of Iraq, but, if so, what are all those big bases and diplomatic offices we built there going to be used for. The drive for American hegemony continued unabated when the Cold War ended. In fact we had new opportunities. For example now that the Soviets were no longer our enemies, we could hegemonize them and their new surrounding states. And, we did, as we helped to setup a plutocracy that bought, but mostly sold, the assets of that country and acquired a whole new set of enemies among the Russian population.  The only requirement for continued American dominance was that the real motivation behind our quest had to be shielded from the American public or we couldn’t become the new Rome. Americans didn’t want to hear that the first Gulf War was all about oil, so one had to float the idea that Saddam was committing acts of atrocity in Kuwait, by throwing babies out of their incubators. In the process of our continued march towards complete hegemony of the world, we divided it up into sectors, each assigned to a specific geographical command structure within our military, including (from Wikipedia)

In the process, we created a global distribution of military bases that numbered more than 700, but that astronomical number includes only those for which we were willing to admit. The real number is classified.

There are many observers of the American scene who believe that, with the public revolutions taking place in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and Jordan, American hegemony is disintegrating before our eyes and we are unequipped for alternative strategies. A few weeks ago, when Egypt erupted, stocks connected to Saudi Arabia dropped and if something similar to what is going on in Egypt, should migrate to that country, which still has the single largest source of oil,  the American empire would suddenly be one without any clothes again. Nudity is unbecoming to a member of the Tea Party. Now that an entirely new era has started for the Egyptian people, the rest of the world stands in awe of their achievements and shares in the belief that no matter what the future holds, the Middle East will never be the same again and America’s role is being shaped by new forces that it cannot control, but needs instead to find a place on the right side of the conflict. Freedom and democracy are supposed to be in our DNA, but remnants of those feelings are hard to find after seventy-five years of militarism.

Tom Englehardt is a keen observer of American hegemony and Cold War history; he comes from an academic career in journalism and teaches at the School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley. He often writes on his own blog, TomDispatch, and a few days ago wrote an article entitled Pox Americana in which he dissects how the false choices of American dominance led us into so many failures that we cannot reconcile, yet we continue to commit the same kinds of errors, somewhat like Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day: you get up and repeat the same experiences every day, because you don’t know how to do otherwise.  It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic and if it weren’t so costly to Americans and the people of the countries we have insisted on dominating. Is it all coming to an end now and if so, will it be possible for Americans to recognize how the revolutionary events of today in the Middle East are going to impact on us tomorrow? These next few years will perhaps be the most critical years for our future and the future of the planet. Will we be teacher who learns while teaching or a student who teaches without learning? We can’t do both and where was there room for military action in Tahrir Square?


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