The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [3]

Ted Grimsrud—May 15, 2020

[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the up and down of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts. Here’s Part I: Sanders Ascendent and Part II: Biden Takes Control.]

Part III: Taking stock

April 14, 2020

How did Trump get elected? [The first of three sections]

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this year’s presidential election is the most crisis-surrounded one since 1932. No one knew then what kind of president Franklin Roosevelt would be. He was far from perfect, but he rose to the occasion and helped make things better. I have no hope for such an outcome this year. How should we think about this? Let’s start with the 2016 election.

Barack Obama won the 2012 election fairly comfortably, and most expected Hillary Clinton to follow suite. She did win the popular vote by about 2% but lost in the electoral college. My sense is that two key parts of the electorate that had supported Obama did not give Clinton the same support: (1) some white working class people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump and (2) some younger people who voted for Obama and then didn’t vote for president in 2016 (e.g., supposedly in Michigan the number of people who voted but left the line for president blank was four times higher than Trump’s margin of victory). The numbers didn’t have to be huge, just enough to make a difference. It appears that Trump did not out-perform Mitt Romney (46.1% of the vote compared to Romney’s 47.2%); the difference was that Clinton under-performed Obama, especially among those two groups.

Clinton, it seems, ran a campaign focused more on putting Trump down than on offering a strong, positive vision that would give undecided people a reason to vote for her. She barely campaigned in the key rust belt states that turned the election. She showed inadequate interest in and empathy toward working people (white and black) who had been hurt by the economic crises of 2008-9. She did little to build bridges to Bernie Sanders’s constituencies. Her tone was that “everything is great” in America, something that may have felt tone-deaf to people who struggled to get by. Continue reading “The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [3]”

The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 2]

Ted Grimsrud—May 2, 2020

[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the ups and downs of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts. [Here’s Part I: Sanders ascendant]

Part II: Biden takes control

March 11, 2020

The Democratic Party’s presidential primaries have taken a dizzying turn these past couple of weeks. It’s been amazing, really.

One of the stunning aspects is how Biden has all of sudden become the presumptive nominee without actually doing anything to earn that status. He has scarcely campaigned and remains the same tepid candidate who was given up for dead just a short time ago.

My sense is that the most powerful factor among Democratic Party voters has been terror at the idea of another Trump term. That extreme fearfulness has been skillfully exploited by the corporate interests. They turned the fearfulness into an anti-Sanders fear (this has included, for months, an endless drumbeat of hostility toward Sanders in the corporate media), so when all the other “moderates” dropped out and left Biden as the only alternative to Sanders, fearful voters turned to him.

The end result, of course, is a terrific victory for the corporate interests—they have their boy in place (though it is a bit unsettling to have the sense that they were close to completely abandoning Biden just weeks ago until it became clear that none of the other candidates had much of a chance; they also seemed to be recognizing his weakness as a candidate). So we are left with a choice—vicious corporatocracy vs. a somewhat kinder, gentler corporatocracy. Of course, this has almost always been our only choice—but for a moment it seemed that this year might be different. Continue reading “The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 2]”

The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 1]

Ted Grimsrud—May 1, 2020

[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the ups and downs of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts.]

PART I: Sanders ascendant

January 20, 2020 notes for an unpublished post

I have appreciated Bernie Sanders ever since he was first elected mayor of Burlington, VT, in the 1980s. If I think of him as a presidential candidate in relation to my ideal of what a candidate would be like, I’d rate him only fair to good. But if I think of him in relation to all the serious candidates for president I know anything about in American history, I would rate him exceptionally good. Right now, it is looking as if he has a genuine shot to win both the nomination and the general election. For the first time ever since I began voting, I feel as if we have one candidate that I can support both in terms of my ideals and the pragmatic likelihood of actually being elected.

As a voter, I tend to place a higher priority on the candidate’s fit with my political values than a sense of who would be most electable. With Sanders, though, I don’t feel as if I have to make a choice between these two approaches.

Sanders is not an extremist. Most of his values correspond with what most American people want when they are polled. At the center is universal healthcare, what Sanders calls “Medicare for All.” He also advocates what he’s calling a “Green New Deal” that will thoroughly address that climate crisis and other environmental problems. I appreciate his critique of the domination of big corporations and billionaires that corrupts our political system. He’s less of an imperialist and warist than any of the other Democratic Party candidates.

He energizes young voters, as well as other generally marginalized groups such as Latinos and Muslims. He cares deeply about the needs of black Americans, other working people, and others at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. He’s critical of the retributivist criminal justice system, he supports unions, is more positive toward Palestinians than the other candidates. He is pushing for an increased minimum wage and for much greater access to higher education and assistance for those who have accumulated major debts from their schooling.

I am optimistic that Sanders actually has a greater potential for defeating Trump than the other candidates. He understands that the Democrats need to expand the electorate and provide reasons for many of the scandalously large number of non-voters (especially young people and people of color) to enter the electoral process. At the same time, because of his critiques of free trade and other policies that alienated working people from corporate-friendly Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, he might also be able to attract some of the “Obama/Trump” voters who might have become less positive about our current president. Continue reading “The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 1]”

Hope, Despair and Environmentalism’s Failures: A Response to “Planet of the Humans”

Ted Grimsrud—April 30, 2020

Planet of the Humans, a just-released documentary by Jeff Gibbs with backing by Michael Moore, is a fascinating, challenging, messy, deeply flawed film. It is also free to watch on You Tube for several more weeks. Since it’s free on You Tube, I encourage people to watch it. Some of the questions it raises are real and too often ignored. That said, I do not have the expertise to evaluate many of the explicit and implicit claims in the movie. But even if the film misrepresents many things, the issues it raises are urgent and badly in need of our attention.

I would describe the film as one person’s account of his struggle to understand the lack of success of the American environmental movement in turning the tide against the destruction of the planet. I think Gibbs is taking the evil of the fossil fuel industry as a given. His focus is on the other side of the equation—the movement to resist the fossil fuel industry and the other forces leading to destruction. Why hasn’t it been more successful? That seems like a valid and important question.

Because it addresses such an important question, the film had my sympathetic attention from the beginning. I found it to be engaging, interesting, and deeply unsettling. Unfortunately, and surprisingly given its association with Michael Moore, the film is utterly lacking in humor (this factor seems to indicate that Moore had little to do with the content of the film). However, sadly, Planet is also pretty superficial, unclear, and slanted. It allows itself to be too vulnerable to the inevitable defensive and hostile criticism from the mainstream environmental movement that it is critical of. So, I will not defend the film. However, I still will encourage people to watch it. I’m glad I did.

Key concerns from the film

There were two main themes that especially captured my attention. The first is the question of how effective “big green energy” (my term) is at actually making a difference. The second is the question of whether the “big green energy” movement is too closely tied with big corporations and the neo-liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The film is not nearly as clear and helpful as it could be in addressing these two issues. It seems altogether possible, perhaps easily, to cast doubt on the arguments that are made in the film, especially in relation to the first theme. That seems almost beside the point to me. What I am interested in is how the mainstream environmental movement responds to the questions themselves—not simply a flat rejection of the possibly deeply flawed ways the film brings them up. Continue reading “Hope, Despair and Environmentalism’s Failures: A Response to “Planet of the Humans””

Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery [Civil War #6]

Ted Grimsrud—September 4, 2019

A new book challenges many of my assumptions about the role of violence and nonviolence in resistance to white supremacy and enslavement in American history. Kellie Carter Jackson, a historian who teaches at Wellesley College, in Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) argues for the centrality of necessary violence in the work of resisting and ending slavery. Though she alludes only briefly to the more recent Civil Rights Movement, she seems to believe that violence was a necessary part of the positive gains made in the 1950s and 1960s as well.

An interesting book

I found this book quite interesting—which, unfortunately, is a comment I make only partly as a compliment. One of Carter Jackson’s achievements that I fully affirm is how she draws attention to the numerous black advocates for abolition in the several decades prior to the Civil War. All too often, the story of the abolitionist movement has focused almost exclusively on the white leaders with the addition of Frederick Douglass. Carter Jackson helps us see how vital and widespread the movement among black activists in the North actually was.

As well, Carter Jackson provides an insightful account of the evolution of the abolitionist movement in face of the extraordinary intransigence of white supremacists in the South and the North. At the beginning of the William Lloyd Garrison-led “formal” abolitionist movement in the early 1830s, the emphasis was on “moral suasion” that was self-consciously opposed to the use of violence to effect liberation for the enslaved. Over the following several decades, as the regime of enslavement became more entrenched—with the deep-seated collaboration of Congress, various pro-slavery presidents, and the Supreme Court—those committed to its eradication became increasingly impatient with the emphasis only on “suasion.” Belief in the necessity of violence for the liberation of the enslaved became increasingly widespread.

However, I do not believe that Carter Jackson has successfully made the case for her more wide-ranging claims (albeit usually only implicitly stated) that violence was indeed necessary, then and ever since, for achieving both liberation from slavery and social equality. In her epilogue she tellingly quotes Cynthia Washington of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from the 1960s, “I was never a true believer in nonviolence.” Washington “carried a handgun in her bag. And though she never fired it, she made it clear that she was willing to do so” (p. 160). Carter Jackson clearly sees Washington’s views on nonviolence as reflecting her own—that is, she doesn’t really give nonviolence a chance. Continue reading “Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery [Civil War #6]”

Pacifism in America, part seven: A pacifist agenda

Ted Grimsrud—June 19, 2019

Escaping war’s long shadow

Past American wars, especially World War II and its long shadow, have played a central role in the expansion and hegemony of our National Security State. The domination of the institutions of militarism and the ideology of necessary violence seem nearly irresistible. The strength of the current moving the American nation state toward the abyss of self-destruction seems overwhelmingly powerful (see Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy).

Until we actually reach the abyss, people who hope for genuine peace on earth will (must!) always hope that the current may be slowed enough that it may be redirected. Such people will devote their best energies to such a redirection. However, I see very little hope that the current toward the abyss will be redirected. This is our paradoxical, almost unbearable, situation: We must redirect our culture (American culture, for sure, but truly all other dominant cultures throughout the world) away from the abyss toward which institutionalized redemptive violence pushes us. But we actually have very little hope of doing so—at least on a large scale.

Creating space to be human

The movement in Central Europe that in the 1970s and 1980s resisted Soviet totalitarianism gives us a crucial image. Activists recognized that large-scale, top-down reform seemed impossible. Violent resistance against the systemic domination of the Communist regimes tended strictly actually to empower the sword-wielding state. So thoughtful resisters, recognizing that acquiescing to the System was intolerable while overthrowing it through direct resistance was impossible, articulated their hopes is exceedingly modest terms.

They spoke simply of creating spaces to be human. In doing so, they self-consciously rejected the story of reality told by the System, but they did not devote their energies to reforming it or ever to overthrowing it through violent direct action. More so, they focused on establishing relatively small spaces where they could build communities, express creativity, and patiently chip away at the portrayal of reality that filled the official media.

As it turned out, these small acts of resistance and counter-culture formation coincided with large-scale crises of legitimacy at the top of the Soviet empire. The System crumbled and major changes happened—though sadly the changes did not go as far as hoped in enabling self-determination and disarmament (for example, the U.S.-led militarization of Western alliances through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization absorbed several of the former Soviet-bloc nations who provided large markets for military hardware).

However, this emphasis on creating spaces to be human remains instructive and inspirational. If it is the case that a top-down transformation for peace is impossible in our current militarized national milieu, the possibilities for small-scale spaces for “being human” in peaceable ways do exist. And we never know what impact cultivating those spaces might have on the bigger picture. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part seven: A pacifist agenda”

Pacifism in America, part six: Peacebuilding and civil society

Ted Grimsrud—June 17, 2019

Efforts to resist racism and nuclearism show how deeply entrenched these problems are in the U.S. Powerful efforts that mobilized thousands upon thousands of people who sought change brought only grudging and fragile improvements. In the case of both sets of issues, the gains sadly were followed by losses and our situation today remains one of peril and injustice.

Only grudging progress

World War II marked a bit of progress in racial justice. Yet many black soldiers left the military frustrated by facing racism even as they answered their country’s call to serve. More so, they encountered oppression as they returned to a profoundly racist country that continued to treat these veterans as second-class citizens. They not only returned to the same old same old in terms of on-going discrimination, they also found themselves deprived of many of the benefits white veterans received due to their service.

Out of these experiences, many blacks deepened their resolve to work for change. So the Civil Rights movement that emerged in force in the second half of the 1950s owed some of its energy to the common experience of the contradictions in American culture where the demand for military service for the sake of “freedom” was accomplished by the denial of basic freedoms to those who served.

The nuclear threat directly arose from World War II. The U.S. was not capable of turning away from the use of these weapons nor from attempting to develop them and to seek a monopoly on their possession. As Garry Wills argues, this willingness by American policy makers to devote such extraordinary amounts of resources to the weapons of death drastically undermined American democracy as well as placed the entire world in enormous peril (see Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State). Then, after the American “victory” in the arms race in the early 1990s, the country proved unable to end the pouring its treasure into systems of destruction.

Nonetheless, despite the seeming intractability of these problems, movements to overcome them contain important lessons for the future of humanity. The violent legacy of World War II has been challenged, effectively. And the challenges to this legacy have created momentum toward change—even if this momentum may not always be obviously discernable. Rosa Parks’ initiating the sit-in in December 1955, and the emergence of an international mass movement opposing nuclear weapons when American policy makers pursued the hydrogen bomb, marked key moments of resistance to the trajectory toward more and more violence. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part six: Peacebuilding and civil society”

Pacifism in America, part five: Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War

Ted Grimsrud—June 12, 2019

Pacifists in the United States in the mid-20th century sought to influence the world toward a more peaceable future following the massive destruction of World War II. We saw in Part Four of this series how this work took the form of widespread service work. In this post, we will look at a few large-scale efforts to resist war.

The initial response to nuclear weapons

Except for the small handful of people involved in its creation, the advent of nuclear weaponry with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 came as a shock to everyone. Overall, the American public strongly affirmed the use of these bombs. Those few who had opposed the War itself responded to Hiroshima and Nagasaki with unqualified horror. Selling out to warfare, they argued, has led to the possibility that now we can bring an end to human life itself. However, at first the pacifists offered a somewhat muted outcry in that they tended to see the nuclear bombs, terrible as they were, mainly as the logical outworking of the war spirit, just one more step toward the abyss, but not necessarily something qualitatively new.

For a brief time, some “prowar liberals” expressed opposition to nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons seemed to go beyond what was necessary. Lewis Mumford, a leading liberal pro-war advocate, stated, “our methods of fighting have become totalitarian; that is, we have placed no limits upon our capacity to exterminate or destroy. The result was moral nihilism, the social counterpart of the atomic bomb.” A report called “Atomic Warfare and the Christian Faith” prepared by liberal Protestant leaders came out in 1946 and expressed opposition to the use of nuclear bombs on Japan.

The other main expression of dissent about bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from within the very community that had created these terrible weapons (see Lawrence Wittner, One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement Through 1953). The one scientist who left the top secret Manhattan Project over moral objections was Joseph Rotblat. “When it became evident, toward the end of 1944, that the Germans had abandoned their bomb project,” Rotblat wrote, “the whole purpose of my being in Los Alamos ceased to be, and I asked for permission to leave and return to Britain.” Rotblat helped found the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. As part of the Pugwash organization, he won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part five: Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War”

Pacifism in America, part four: Pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement

Ted Grimsrud—June 7, 2019

The 20th century has accurately been called the century of total war. The massive death and destruction visited upon the people of the world especially in the first half of that century (with the constant threat of exponentially more death and destruction with the possibility of nuclear war) obliterated the basic human belief in the preciousness of life. One of the pillars of authentic human civilization is organizing society in light of the belief in the preciousness of life. That is why we put so many resources into, for example, healthcare, education, sanitation, and agriculture. We seek to make it possible for human life to thrive.

Powerfully countering all this momentum toward enhancing life, war and the preparation for war treats human life as shockingly expendable. The best and most creative resources of western civilization are focused on killing, not on enhancing life. Yet we still face profound injustices. One of the major justifications for war is the assertion that war is necessary as a means to resist evil. Are there alternative ways to resist evil without relying on violence?

As historian Joseph Kip Kosek wrote, “the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of violence. It was not, as such, Fascism, Communism, economic inequality, or the color line, though all of these were deeply implicated. It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness”(Joseph Kip Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy, 5).

The massive resources the United States devoted to resisting fascism and communism in World War II did in fact not result in enhanced human wellbeing. Those efforts did not recognize as fundamental the profound problem of violence. By using violence to counter those twin ideologies over the past seventy years, the U.S. found itself on a rapid descent toward militaristic self-destruction. We do have one example, though, of significant progress in overcoming injustice without extreme violence.

The Civil Rights Movement

The American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in important respects, reflected an attempt to keep the problem of violence at the forefront and to challenge a devastating social problem in light of the centrality of the problem of violence. By refusing to subordinate the problem of violence to some other problem, for a brief but extraordinarily fruitful moment, the American Civil Rights movement actually made enormous progress in genuine social transformation. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part four: Pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement”

Pacifism in America, part three: Making peace through service

Ted Grimsrud—June 5, 2019

 The resilient response to World War II by those few who retained their pacifist commitments insured that when the war finally ended, there would be peacemakers to devote themselves to overcoming the effects of the massive violence. As we will see, these efforts often took the shape of nonviolent direct action for social change. However, the experience of a world at war also greatly stimulated expanded works of service from pacifist groups.

The Civil Rights and nuclear disarmament movements sought directly to transform American culture through social activism. They were ad hoc uprisings made up of a variety of citizens whose energies ebbed and flowed over the time of the movements’ activities. Their significance lies in their quest, at times remarkably successful, for genuine democracy from the bottom up, based not on coercive force but on the exercise of self-determination.

Alongside these transformation-seeking movements, we should also be attentive to several long-term efforts, largely motivated by pacifist sensibilities, to work for self-determination and disarmament through acts of service. The first of these “service committees” was the American Friends Service Committee. I will also discuss two other quite different but parallel service-oriented groups, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Catholic Worker.

American Friends Service Committee

AFSC established a presence in numerous international locations during the inter-war years, but also invested significant time and money in working inside the U.S. in relief and development work during the Great Depression. AFSC leaders worked skillfully with government officials—even to the point that long-time AFSC director Clarence Pickett developed a strong working relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and through her had significant contact with President Roosevelt himself.

AFSC had links with numerous Quaker centers throughout Western Europe that had begun with the post-World War I relief work. With the rise of Nazism, these Quakers, with support from AFSC, sought to facilitate the emigration of beleaguered Jews. They met with resistance from the American and British governments, so were unable to help nearly as many people as they wanted to. But they helped some, they sounded the alarm (too seldom heeded) about the increasing danger faced by Jews, and they challenged (not successfully enough) the political structures in the U.S. to respond to this crisis. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part three: Making peace through service”