Like many on the left, I am of a split mind on the now concluded debates and the campaign melodrama, which is a bigger quadrennial extravaganza than usual this time for some good reasons. I am appalled of course by the vast number of interrelated topics that are simply “off the table” (to use Alexander Cockburn’s term in a poignant Nation critique of Kerry a few weeks back) of discussion:
Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, the real reasons that the US is targeted by Islamic terrorists and hated across the Muslim world, the totalitarian power exercised by tyrannical corporations at home and abroad, the pressing need to end the occupation of Iraq NOW and not in 2 or 3 years.
Add to that the devastating impact of planetary corporate-petro-capitalism on world ecology (creating the likelihood of fairly imminent “runaway” global-warming according to recent reports), the fundamental contradiction (noted by Venezualan president Hugo Chavez) between vast socioeconomic inequality and meaningful democracy (a topic of great significance in a nation where the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the wealth…the US that is).
And the need for sweeping overhaul of the nation’s authoritarian and plutocratic winner-take-all elections system, the need for media-reform and restructuring, the need for reparations to compensate African-Americans for the living legacy and crime of black chattel slavery and its Jim Crow/ghetto/mass incarceration aftermaths, and the racist and imperial “War on Drugs.” The list goes on. It is interesting to note Kerry refuses to say anything about 9/11 itself (surely one of the greatest security failures in history), which the Bush administration very possibly could have prevented and did nothing to avert. Bush’s security failures were so bad that much of the world thinks he was actually involved in planning the operation. I am disgusted, of course, by the manipulative sound-bite sloganeering and the constant repetition of the same points (and deletions) over and over again, the obsession with appearance (“body language”) and the elevation of superficial corporate-crafted “likeability” over actual policy substance (“message”), itself all-too-corporate-crafted. It is obscene, of course, that the left Green candidate David Cobb, the liberal populist Ralph Nader, and the Libertarian candidate were excluded from the debates. Cobb and the Libertarian were carted off to jail after trying to get in. How many people died Wednesday in occupation-related violence in Iraq (the papers reported six US soldiers killed) as the candidates waxed romantic about the women and the God in their lives? For six US soldiers and however many Iraqis — Bush’s Pentagon doesn’t “do body counts” when it comes to Arabs — who died on Wednesday, all relationships with anyone but (if you are religious) God. There were more deaths on Thursday, thanks to an insurgent attack in the government’s Green Zone compound. Bush and Kerry are arguing about who is the better guardian of empire and inequality at home and abroad, with Kerry saying that he is more competent and the other saying he is more righteous. According to a recent Council on Foreign Relations survey of American public opinion on foreign policy, most Americans reject the US veto power at the United Nations Security Council, think the US should have joined the International Criminal Court, are very guarded and cautious about the use of force overseas (they do not buy the “preventive war” idea), and (get this) think the US “shouldn’t take either side” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This public opinion was largely invisible at the presidential debates, where both participants were unabashed Israel enthusiasts, wanted to portrary themselves as ready to kick overseas butt (kill foreigners) at the drop of a hat (though Kerry, son of a Cold War diplomat, is fairly eloquent on behalf of tactical multilateralism), and were incapable of acknowledging the tens of thousands of Arab victims in the bloody terrorist “war on terror.” The American people are not the fierce unilateralists and militarists that the candidates seem to think they are. It is damning but hardly surprising that African-American issues went completely unacknowlegded until there were about 15 minutes left in the last of the four (3 “presidential” and 1 vice-presidential) debates. An especially pathetic scene came in the VP debate when both Edwards and Cheney seemed utterly ignorant of the important fact that HIV and AIDS rates have risen significantly in black communities in recent years. At the same time, I’ve also been taken by how significantly superior Kerry and how incredibly bad Bush has been. Kerry has been cleaning Bush’s clock, within the sadly restricted parameters, revealing the incumbent as what he really is: a sputtering, mean-spirited C-student creature of campaign dirty tricks, racist black voter disenfranchisement in Florida (a story about to be repeated), illegal Supreme Court intervention, and of course the great event that Repubicans love to pretend to hate: Nine-Eleven. It’s been like watching a battle between two very different centers in an NBA game. Kerry scores inside, scores outside, and has an elegant hookshot. He plays with intelligent and measured grace. He’s adept at blocking shots and rarely commits fouls because he doesn’t particuarly need to resort to anything much more than his skills. He’s slick and effective. Bush is a lumbering. muscle-bound bully who can barely shoot the ball from more than three feet out and scores only after he manages to muscle the other guy out of the way. He fouls constantly and is frequently caught out of position. As he gets more and more “lit up” by his opponent, he becomes more agitated and resorts to baiting his opponent with verbal abuse, calling him a panzy and other nasty names. On the few occasions that he makes anything like a decent shot, he puts on a big stupid grin and parades around the court like a goon. Nobody’s quite sure why he even has a starting position in the big leagues but his team is too embarassed to admit how bad his performance is. What were the first two words out of George W. Bush’s mouth in the 2004 presidential debates? The first word was “September.” The second word was “Eleventh.” As in “September 11th changed everything,” making us realize that Saddam Hussein was a great threat and so we had to invade Iraq (telling our troops that they were avenging 9/11 by the way). This was a total deception, of course. The BushNeocons wanted to invade Iraq all along and saw 9/11 as the Reichstag fire that would let them make their imperial dreams come true. In the last debate, Bush looked pathetic and disparate (and McCarthyite) when he responded to Kerry’s pointed domestic economy and policy jabs by reaching down into his putrid West Texas “gut” to spit up the dreaded “L word” (“liberal”, also sometimes known to Bushcon neo-McCarthyites as “socialist”) and also the dreaded K word (as in that well-known Bolshevik Ted Kennedy). Dubya tried to paint out Kerry’s centrist and barely even corporate-liberal health care plan as some sort of “government run” path down the road to Stalinism. Just about every single “sentence” (or whatever) Bush almost manages to string together is some kind of monstrous deception. As the New York Times’ true-liberal columnist Paul Krugman predicted on Tuesday, Bush shamelessly lied Wednesday night about the tax cuts. He claimed that “tax relief” had gone equally to everybody when in fact the regressive, defeciti-generating tax reductions went very disproportionately to the very rich, who “need” them the least in a supposed time of “war” that calls for American “sacrifice.” It was great to hear the president speak about his love for a “culture of life” (as in “I will appoint anti-abortion advocates to the Supreme Court in my next term”) in light of his deadly record of state executions in Texas and as the US body-count climbed above 1,070. Does anyone remember this Christian “life” enthusiast sneering over evangelical prisoner Carla Fay Tucker’s request for a pardon, laughing as he claimed that she said “please don’t kill me?” I’d like to give you the exact number of Iraqi dead but Bush’s Pentagon doesn’t care to gauge Arab deaths and Kerry doesn’t ask, though interested readers should keep a regular eye on the excellent research being done at www.iraqbodycount.org. In the last debate, Bush had a simple answer for almost every social and economic ill that haunts America (with ever greater impact under Bush): “Edge-ooo-Cayshun.” Education. That’s interesting since Bush and his loathsome Uncle Tom Education Secretary Rod Paige (made notorious on page-one of the New York Times for lying about standardized test scores and dropout rates in the Houston Public Schools) have worked to cripple American public education with the vicious so-called “No Child Left Behind Act.”
That all-too bipartisan legislation is certainly designed is designed to set the public schools up for private-sector “liberation” (dismantlement) through vouchers and corporate-takeover. Gee, kind of sounds like Bush FOREIGN policy. Paige, by the way has referred to a leading US teacher’s union — the National Education Association — as “terrorists.” I do not know if the FBI and CIA have followed up on alleged links between the NEA, Saddam and al Qaeda. Isn’t Bush himself proof of the limits of what educational institutions can do for people who can’t or don’t want to learn? This guy had access to the the best schools the nation’s “elite” have to offer — Andover, Yale (which he entered under the protection of a venerable “elite” Affirmative Action program called the Legacy System) and Harvard…and this debate performance was the best he could muster when given an opportunity to outline his vision for America and the world? Pathetic. Kerry is nowhere near the actual opposition candidate we need and deserve. Still, he’s noticeably better than Bush and not just in the sense of being smarter and more competent, and it’s scandalous and a little bit unintentionally (I hope) racist for the “Dime’s Difference” crowd of hyper-alienated left critics not to notice the degree of domestic policy variation on health care, on tax policy, on the minimum wage, union rights, welfare policy, Social Security (which Bush very much wants to privatize), on civil rights (which Bush wants to gut) and race (whose persistently great significance Bush denies) and other “homeland” (lovely term, that) issues. One of the strongest parts of Kerry’s presentation Wednesday night came when he acknowledged the unfinished nature of the struggle for black equality, the persistent existence of “two separate school systems” for blacks and whites in the United States (a decent and accurate thing to note in the year of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision) and the continuing need for affirmative action (which Bush opposes). When it was Bush’s turn to talk about race and racial inequality, all he could do was spout his pathetic twaddle about “Education,” which for him means the glorious shame- and test-based beating and drilling down of young minds (especially those of black and brown kids) in advance of corporate takeover through the fiscal starvation and corporate privatization of the public school commons. Surprisingly enough, Bush spared us his usual list of black race-traitors he has appointed to numerous key White House positions. The top two names on that list — the despicable Colin Powell and the vile Condaleeza Rice — helped design and promote a vicious racist war that the great majority of African-Americans strongly oppose. The notion of this guy coming back for a second term is obscene. And the notion of some people on the left not caring if he returns is beneath contempt. I recently read one my fellow radicals saying that “things will be bad under Kerry and things will be bad under Bush.” Ho-hum. Oh well. Whatever. I know what the radical means, of course: capitalism sucks but take that message to the black community and see what kind of response you get, comrade. An African-American leftist recently wrote me to mention the “calllous indifference” of some of “the Nader crowd” to “a significant constituency that they hope to appeal to:” Blacks. This cold disregard, this leftist feels, “denote[s] a racial problem that these people are gonna have to deal with at some point. Non-leftist black, brown, asian, etc. folk ain’t impressed with such disregard.” Good point. I’ve been approached by Kerry campaign workers in two battleground states so far —- Iowa and Wisconsin. They came up with clipboards and asked me and others to “help fire Bush.” Not to help elect Kerry so much as “fire Bush.” We spoke about the problems with Kerry. They agreed that Kerry has big issues and is too conservative and should be saying more – much more – than he says on the campaign trail and in the debates. They have no illusions about Kerry and they have no illusions about American “democracy” and the need to change the rules. Neither do I. They agree with me we have roll up our sleeves and fight the new boss and indeed the boss’s system the minute we get rid of the old boss. Yes, the debates have been too restricted, yes we need a new electoral systsem, one that encourages and enables the rise of real opposition parties, yes the Demcoratic Party has traveled way too far to the corporate center and needs to be significantly challenged and perhaps displaced by something to its left…all of that…yes, yes, yes. But no the differences between Kerry and Bush are not irrelevant. The major party candidates are not simply “the same.” “Coke versus Pepsi” just doesn’t cut it. If you want to know why I suggest that you start by talking to a politically attentive African-American. If you find one who is like 8 or 9 out of 10 such black Americans, they will be happy to tell you why Kerry is Coke but Bush is Crack and how your dime’s worth of difference is worth a dolllar or more to them. Paul Street ([email protected]) is an urban social policy researcher on the South Side of Chicago. His book Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 has been released by Paradigm Publishers and can be ordered at www.paradigmpublishers.com.