The People, No
Yesterday, July 19, was former Democratic senator and presidential candidate George McGovern’s 90th birthday.
I thought of McGovern recently because I was trying to pin down when I first started hating America. I’ve been a little tired of all these Osama and Anwar al-come-lately’s and the glory they get for hating America when many of us have toiled unpaid and unknown hating America for decades. The way I see it is these are foreign terrorists taking what ought to be American jobs. (To be fair, Anwar al-Awlaki wasn’t a foreigner, he was an American citizen, just like his 16 year-old son, Abdulrahman, and Obama killed both of them in separate drone strikes. To be fairer still, from everything I’ve read, the elder Awlaki was not a terrorist -- he was a skilled propagandist and his killing was simply another of Murder Inc.’s free speech hits serving the parallel goals of getting praise in some parts of America while throwing intimidation into others, i.e.: “See how confidently outrageous and barbaric we are -- don’t ever give a thought to effectively opposing us!” Bringing it all back home, indeed.)
Also bolstering my America-hating street cred: Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki both initially collaborated with the US government which I’ve never done. (Bin Laden worked with the CIA in the 1980s to drive out the Russians from Afghanistan. In 2002 al-Awlaki was invited by congressional staffers to be the first imam to conduct a prayer service at the US Capitol to “improve relations” between Muslims and the American government that’s murdering them like there’s no tomorrow.) Boogeymen though they became, bin Laden and al-Awlaki strangely imagined that the American government would not double cross them (leaving American troops in Muslim holy lands, starting brand new wars in the Middle East, etc.) No one from the coal-mining desecrated hills in West Virginia to the racist police state along the Mexican border or the stop-and-frisk streets of NYC would make such a mistake about the US government.
I’d like to report that I was hip enough to hate America when I was still in the womb -- that I could immediately sense America’s malevolent vibrations -- but, hard head that I am, it actually took 16 years. (Although I was said to be a “terror,” I grew up in a time when even the scuzziest American president didn’t drop bombs on 16 year-old American kids.)
Here’s how it happened: My mother and I stuffed envelopes for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign and we were very happy we had such a good man to support. I was too young to vote but I was looking forward to being on the winning team. It would be unthinkable that the American people would choose the corrupt, racist, warmonger Nixon over McGovern, who was a World War II war hero running on a platform of ending the Vietnam War. For the country to choose Nixon would mean that something was deeply wrong with the American people.
Triple dog duh!
McGovern got landslided in 1972 and the American working class has been landsliding the world ever since in proud ignorance, cowardly violence and infinite obedience. So I say, contra Carl Sandberg: the people, no, hail no, for god sakes, no. I know as a Marxist I’m supposed to promote working class solidarity but I’m never really feeling the love. The union guys I work with don’t know anything about May Day, Big Bill Haywood or surplus value but they’re idiot savants when it comes to fantasy football, Philly strip clubs and the most Eden-like places to blow away defenseless animals.
People are always making excuses for the American working class, echoing Jimmy Carter’s maggot-gagging line about America deserving “a government as good as its people.” I say America is the same old racist genocider it started out as, it just goes into hibernation for awhile, dormant like a retrovirus. Genocide and stealing from people of color was kind of like our first love -- we never got over it and we’re always trying to replicate it. If America wasn’t the same old racist genocider, we would have made reparations to Indigenous peoples, black Americans, the several million we killed during the Vietnam War and the million Iraqis killed in our latest rampage. The problem is that America never gets corrected, there’s never enough Geronimos, John Browns or Ho Chi Minhs to go around.
I’d like to see what happens when the American working class gets pushed to the wall, that revolutionary crisis when we’re impelled to rebel, the tipping point when the price of a gallon of gas gets higher than a pack of Marlboros. Will we turn to reaction and lay waste to the nearest defenseless minority or will we unite in solidarity and lay waste to the capitalist tapeworms?
It’s hard to relate to something as alienated and shut down as the American working class, maybe because they never learn anything, as in the Wisconsin recall vote, where they chose a tentacle of the Kochtopus, or a Globescan poll of two weeks ago which showed that 58% of Americans believe that rich people deserve their wealth. The kicker: it was up 1 point over the same 2008 poll -- this, after the capitalist magicians turned public money into personal bonuses, 401Ks into 201Ks, vibrant neighborhoods into ghost towns and the greatest destruction of black wealth in 100 years, to which Don Corleobastardone and his chief unenforcer Eric “Fold’em” Holder say “Fugettaboutit!” as far as any fraudsters being prosecuted. Number one in the same poll were Australians, 61% of whom enjoyed being fucked by the capitalist class, up from 53% in 2008. Way to go champs/chumps! Throw another prole on the barbie! All props to the Greeks who came in the lowest at 9%, though it remains to be seen how many of the other 91% can be leveraged into torches, pitchforks and Molotov cocktails.
In 1976, when I was 20, a really cool thing happened: newsman Paul Duke of the Public Broadcasting System did several shows on 3rd party presidential candidates. There was a libertarian, a communist, a couple socialists (one of whom was Julius Levin of the Socialist Labor Party) and a few others. It was refreshing to hear these candidates explain their platforms and philosophies, their critiques of the Democrats and Republicans. You won’t get a national TV show today with people respectfully and rationally discussing why the American government should be overthrown and what would replace it. Parents, please teach your children well that the “freedom” to surf the web while taking a dump is not the same as having meaningful political choices.
I was very excited about what Julius Levin was saying about the socialist industrial union form of government: a government based on industry instead of an anachronism like territory, a government of nurses, farmers, machinists, secretaries, plumbers, etc., democratically elected at every level -- local, regional and national -- from all workplaces with no union reps making any more money than the average worker. This all-industrial council of workers would replace the nonproductive pampered professional politicians called Congress. In short, industrial unionism would make Jefferson’s citizen-legislators real -- ALL the citizens: blacks, women, unpropertied white males, everybody. Capitalism’s Supreme Court weather vanes would be sent packing and the Whitey House would be turned into a museum honoring working class heroes. I imagine a fun and funky gift shop also, a kind of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, “honoring” 200 years of various capitalist administrations and their absurdities -- for instance, it might sell blue dresses and cigars to commemorate the Clinton years.
At the end of Paul Duke’s show there was contact info for each political party so I wrote to the SLP. In no time at all I went from disillusionment about McGovern’s walloping four years earlier to my blood being on fire with Marx’s “Paris Commune,” Gustav Bang’s “Crises in European History” and everything that the great American Marxist Daniel De Leon ever wrote. Not only that, but I became happy, not because I thought change was imminent in America, but because I was free, no longer living in a fog or lost in a dream, and because there was a great future out there ready for whenever the working class decided to take it. Suddenly, I was going where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain, whether anyone else was going or not, whether it ever came to fruition or not, I could see the way out of this, the country and the world started making sense -- why even “good men” capitalist politicians like George McGovern could only go so far. In Marx, De Leon, Rosa Luxemburg and others, here were long dead people whose thoughts were more relevant to my experience in the world than all the obfuscation and lies of Carter, Ford and Reagan. Despite all the media we have, does a young person today have an opportunity to get exposed to people who have a fundamentally different view of the world than the ruling class? Paul Duke’s show came out of the blue, I wouldn’t have known to “search” for Socialist Industrial Unionism, for example, because I didn’t know that it existed. It came to me because the ruling class let it come to me, it was a more open and freer time.
Thanks, Paul Duke. And thanks, world, for letting me in and come of age when you did, that remarkable gust of freedom between when the Beatles came (1964) and Nixon went (1974.) After 1974, it was all over, the last victory for the American working class was probably Nixon saving the wolf with the Endangered Species Act, though, as everything is always up for grabs under capitalism, wolves are now being hunted again. For the last 40 years it’s been nothing but reaction and unremitting working class defeat.
George McGovern accomplished something that we still see the fruits (and vegetables) of today: he chaired the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs which released the 1977 “Dietary Goals for the United States,” commonly called “The McGovern Report.” The committee gathered studies on human health and nutrition and took testimony from a diverse group of Americans and concluded that, for better health, Americans should eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less meat, dairy products and sugar. Common knowledge now, but not then among the general public. This report incensed animal slavers, especially in McGovern’s home state of South Dakota, and he was defeated for reelection in 1980.
The aftermath of the McGovern Report is instructive as to how immaterial truth and science are under capitalism. First off, after furious meat and dairy industry lobbying, many of the initial conclusions of the report were watered down. And in the years that followed, despite the bounty of healthy food and health knowledge available, despite study after study showing the superiority of plant-based diets, despite how much easier it is to be a vegan now than in 1977, despite all of the awareness raised by animal activists about how cruelly farm animals are raised and killed, despite the work of environmentalists showing how wasteful and destructive animal agriculture is, despite the work of biologists and animal behaviorists showing that other animals have social, emotional and psychological lives just like we do, despite philosophers making powerful cases that there are no morally relevant differences between us and most other animals -- despite all of this, 10 billion farm animals are now raised and killed each year in America (not including fish) versus less than 4 billion in 1977 when the McGovern Report was released. Six billion more animals killed each year than 35 years ago, an onslaught of mind-boggling suffering, waste of resources and death. As befits our air-headed world, I know many vegans who view the present as a golden age because we can get every little vegan thing for our own personal consumption while the 10 billion farm animal deaths-per-year number doesn’t budge. Capitalism is the Devil, and the Devil can be very accommodating. (I have a big interest in non-human beings but you can substitute and contrast any issue then and now-- civil liberties, the military, the environment -- and find the present incredibly lacking. If you tell me that blacks can sit at lunch counters and the front of the bus, I’ll say great and I’ll raise you one incarceration nation, a poverty draft, racial profiling, the dusty old chips of redlining and disenfranchisement and I’ll go all in with the greatest inequalities in wealth since the Great Depression.)
The McGovern Report won the intellectual battle and that’s only strengthened as years go by. But in the real world of blood and money, corporate welfare and relentless brainwashing advertising, the meat industry prevailed. Subsidies are still given for animal products that the government itself says we should minimize eating, not to mention all the grain and water subsidies and cheap grazing rights on public land. The government also helps American factory farmers sell their cruel, wasteful polluting confinement systems to China and other countries. As these nations take on the rich western diet their previous good health disappears and they start having the same chronic diseases seen in Americans. If we can’t beat them militarily we’ll help them destroy themselves nutritionally and environmentally. (For a wonderful group dedicated to helping the humans and non-humans of Ethiopia, including keeping factory farming out of Ethiopia, go the the website of the International Fund for Africa.)
Every movement for a better world -- civil rights, environmental, antiwar, animal lib -- bumps up against the profit motive of capitalism, finds out how much/little is possible and then slinks back into ineffectiveness and irrelevance because, for these movements to progress any further, they must end capitalism. In my neck of the woods that means macho idiot savants conquer women and non-human beings but refuse to fight the only battle that matters against the capitalist masters.
Anyway, thanks Senator McGovern for trying to stop the war, thanks for visiting impoverished areas of America in the 1960s and bringing them to the attention of the rest of the country and expanding the food stamp program in response, thanks for your first speech on the senate floor in 1963 criticizing Kennedy’s policy on Cuba and being the first senator to criticize the Vietnam War that same year, thanks for changing the equation about how the nation looks at food and health, even if it’s mostly in peoples’ minds and not their tongues. You probably outlived all those animal farmers who ousted you from office and I bet, no matter what physical condition you are in, you are more ethically fit than anyone in the current US Senate. Happy 90th!
And now, a coda. This is McGovern addressing his senate colleagues in 1970 for their lack of opposition to the Vietnam War. Imagine any of today’s venal, cowardly US Senators -- working as they do for Lockheed, Israel and Wall Street -- saying anything like this even though the words are more pertinent than ever:
“Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land - young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.”
“This chamber reeks of blood.”
Unpopular, unconstitutional war waged by a murderous arrogant emperor with a compliant congress, a little somethin’ somethin’ we can believe in!
Unpopular, unconstitutional war waged by a murderous arrogant emperor with a compliant congress, a little somethin’ somethin’ we can believe in!
published 7/20/2012 at counterpunch.org