Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Proposition 8, DoMA and the Supreme Court

“The End of the Beginning” of the Struggle for Marriage Equality


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

First, the good news: the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear the constitutional challenge to Proposition 8, the voter-approved initiative that abruptly stopped California’s four and one-half month experience of marriage equality in November 2008.
Now, the bad news: the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the constitutional challenge to Proposition 8.
It’s good news in the sense that we’re finally going to get an answer as to whether a state has the constitutional right to define marriage either to include or exclude same-sex couples. It’s bad news in the sense that the answer we’re going to get is hardly likely to be the one we want — especially those of us who, like my husband Charles and I, took advantage of the 4 ½-month “window” between the effective date of the California Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex marriage and the passage of Proposition 8 to get married. Since then we, and the estimated 18,000 other same-sex couples who got married in California when it was blessedly legal, have been in the truly weird position of actually having the “special rights” opponents of Queer equality always accuse us of seeking, since we can be married but other couples — including ones who’ve been together longer than we have — can’t.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Proposition 8 case is bad news in another way besides the eventual outcome of their decision. If they hadn’t — if they’d ducked the issue and allowed the most recent ruling in the Perry v. Brown case by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to stand — Queer couples would be able to marry in California now. Even if the Supreme Court ultimately upholds the right of same-sex couples in California to marry, their decision to take the case means up to a year of additional delay in a case that has already dragged on for over two years — and where the judges throughout the process have “stayed” the decision so Queer couples still can’t get married in California even though both courts that have ruled in the case have said they should.
And the case is coming before the most reactionary Supreme Court since the 1930’s. Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom Queer legal strategists are depending on to be the “swing vote,” isn’t the moderate “man in the middle” he’s been portrayed as in a lot of the media coverage. He’s a thoroughgoing Right-winger who wrote the infamous Citizens United decision in 2010, which basically said that corporations and rich people didn’t have enough influence on American politics and the Constitution said they must be allowed even more. He also wrote the dissent in the case on the Affordable Care Act — so-called “Obamacare” — which basically eviscerated the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause and drastically cut back the ability of Congress to regulate private business. Kennedy meant this to be a majority opinion, and it would have been had he not been double-crossed by Chief Justice John Roberts, who signed on to Kennedy’s attack on the commerce clause but found Obamacare’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance constitutional under Congress’s power to tax.
There are only two major issues on which Kennedy has deviated from the strict Right-wing line. One is capital punishment, particularly executing teenagers and using the death penalty for crimes other than murder. The other is Queer rights. The main reason both the Queer community and the odd couple of lawyers who brought the Perry case to court, Ted Olson and David Boies, counted on Kennedy as the “swing vote” is that he wrote the Court’s two most powerful and luminous opinions upholding Queer equality in its history: Romer v. Evans (1996), which threw out a voter-approved “No Promo Homo” initiative in Colorado that invalidated anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation; and Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which struck down all laws prohibiting sex between same-gender partners.
But even on Queer rights, Kennedy’s mostly positive record comes with some serious asterisks. In 2000 he provided the “swing vote” for a 5-4 decision upholding the Boy Scouts of America’s ability to discriminate against Queers and atheists, on the ground that the Boy Scouts is a religious organization and therefore has a First Amendment right to let its religious beliefs determine its membership policies. In 2009 he temporarily halted the release of the names of people in Washington state who’d signed a petition to repeal a domestic partnership law, and a year later he refused to allow the Perry trial to be televised. His reasoning in both cases was the same: whereas the Kennedy who wrote Romer had seen the Queer community as a persecuted minority that needed to be protected from efforts by the majority to legislate away their rights, the Kennedy of 2009-2010 saw evangelical Christians and other opponents of Queer equality as the embattled minority whose rights needed to be protected from a Queer-friendly majority.
Nonetheless, both judges who’ve written pro-Queer opinions in Perry to date clearly aimed them at Justice Kennedy, freely quoting from both Romer and Lawrence and citing them as controlling precedents. Indeed, Appeals Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt’s majority opinion in Perry, which is what the Supreme Court will be reviewing, narrowed the case considerably to make it seem more like Romer. Reinhardt ruled that once a state had allowed same-sex couples to marry, it would be unconstitutional to take away that right — but he left open whether it would be constitutional to ban same-sex marriage in a state that never had allowed it.
The other source for optimism about the Supreme Court’s decision is that after nearly 20 years of steady defeats for marriage equality at the ballot box, the tide finally turned in 2012. Voters in Maryland and Washington state defeated referenda that would have reversed their state legislatures’ bills allowing same-sex couples to marry. Voters in Maine reversed their 2009 vote for a Proposition 8-like initiative and became the first state specifically to allow same-sex marriage via direct democracy instead of legislation or a court case. And voters in Minnesota refused to enshrine their state’s legislative ban on marriage equality into the state constitution — making November 6 a welcome four-for-four win for our side on an issue that until then had been rejected by virtually every U.S. electorate that had had the chance to weigh in on it.
But it would be foolhardy to assume that this year’s election victories on marriage equality will make the Supreme Court more likely to rule in our favor and issue a sweeping decision declaring that barring same-sex couples from legal marriage is an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause. It’s just as likely that the justices will see it the other way — as evidence that the political process is working as it should. The Court could read victories for marriage equality at the ballot box as confirmation that rather than make a hard-and-fast ruling that would apply nationwide, they should let politics take its course and allow individual states to decide to allow same-sex couples to marry or not, as they choose — which, in California, would mean a long, hard slog to persuade voters to repeal Proposition 8 and a very expensive and problematic political campaign to counter the Right-wing lies that got them to pass it in the first place.
The current U.S. Supreme Court is dominated by a hard-core radical-Right majority that is generally loath to issue sweeping rulings expanding the civil rights of historically disadvantaged communities. This Court is not, no way, no how going to decide that over 200 years of American experience with marriage defined exclusively as the union of one man and one woman has been a violation of the Constitution. There is a scant possibility that there might be five justices on board for a compromise along the lines suggested by Judge Reinhardt in his Ninth Circuit opinion: that there isn’t necessarily an intrinsic constitutional right to marriage for same-sex couples, but once a state grants such a right they can’t take it away again. But even that seems unlikely. If the case had come before the Supreme Court from, say, Rhode Island, they might have ducked it altogether and allowed marriage equality to come to one relatively insignificant state essentially by default. But not in California, the nation’s most populous state —especially now that the nation’s second most populous state, New York, has legislated marriage equality through the political process rather than by the courts.
What’s most likely is that the Supreme Court will uphold the constitutionality of Proposition 8 and state that whether to allow same-sex couples access to legally recognized marriage is a matter for individual states to decide. There’s a possibility that either or both of the Court’s most crazily Right-wing justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, will issue a concurring opinion based on an “original intent” argument that since marriage was assumed to be between one man and one woman when both the original Constitution and the 14th Amendment were written, all laws allowing same-sex marriage are de facto unconstitutional. But it’s likely most of the justices will shy away from a sweeping constitutional pronouncement on either side of the marriage equality question. It’s even possible one or more of the Democratic appointees on the Court might join an opinion upholding Proposition 8 on the ground that even if their personal preference would be for allowing same-sex couples to marry, whether they can or not is a decision for the political process and not for the courts.
This result would leave marriage between same-sex couples about where marriage between first cousins is today: some states would allow it, some states wouldn’t. But there’d be one important difference: Congress never passed a law defining marriage at the federal level as between one man and one woman who aren’t closer blood relatives than second cousins. Congress did pass the disgusting “Defense of Marriage Act” (DoMA) in 1996, which had two major provisions: it barred legally married same-sex couples from enjoying any of the benefits of marriage granted by federal law, and it said that no state had to recognize any marriage of a same-sex couple from another U.S. state or foreign country where it was legal. And unfortunately, while the Supreme Court is reviewing the federal definition of marriage under DoMA, they’re not — at least not yet — making a decision on the constitutionality of the provision that allows states not to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Until that part of DoMA falls, whether by Congressional action or a later Supreme Court case invalidating it, every married same-sex couple in the U.S. lives with a footnote on their marriage license: “*This marriage valid only in the state where it took place and any other state that chooses to recognize it.”
The DoMA case the Supreme Court did choose to review involves Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old Lesbian who married her partner in Canada in 2007 when they had already been together 42 years. Two years later, Windsor’s wife died — and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) billed Windsor for $363,000 in estate taxes, which she wouldn’t have had to pay if the federal government had legally recognized her marriage. It’s a narrow enough case that it seems likely the Supreme Court will craft some sort of legal dipsy-doodle that will let Windsor off the hook for the $363,000 tax bill but won’t offer a definitive yea or nay on the constitutionality of DoMA. In the last 10 years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, the Supreme Court routinely did this sort of thing in cases involving African-American victims of racial discrimination, especially in education and housing: they issued carefully crafted decisions that gave justice to the individual plaintiffs before them without disturbing the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine from 1896 that had allowed racial segregation. And it’s known that Anthony Kennedy is familiar with these cases because he cited two of them, Shelley v. Kraemer and Sweatt v. Painter, in his majority opinion in Romer v. Evans.
The Perry case was always a longshot before the current Right-wing Supreme Court, which has been so hostile to civil rights cases that the first law Barack Obama signed as President was a bill reversing a Supreme Court ruling that had made it virtually impossible for women to sue their employers for discriminating against them. It’s highly unlikely that a Court majority so hostile to claims by women, minorities and the 99 percent in general is going to issue a ground-breaking decision establishing the right of same-sex couples to marry, either throughout the country or in its most populous state. It’s more likely that the Court will leave it up to the governments of each U.S. state to decide whether or not to offer civil marriage to Queer couples — and the Queer rights movement will have to spend decades of struggle to win marriage equality state by state. The Court’s likely rulings on Proposition 8 and DoMA won’t be the end of the marriage equality fight; they will at best be what Winston Churchill called “the end of the beginning.”

A Different Inauguration for San Diego’s New Mayor

Bob Filner Takes Oath of Office in Balboa Park, Tours Neighborhoods


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Bob Filner speaking at the LGBT Center, Dec. 3, 2012

Bob Filner and his fiancée, Bronwyn Ingram

Bob Filner and Ingrid Croce (Jim Croce’s widow)

Bronwyn Ingram, Bob Filner, Jess Durfee and Christine Kehoe

Bob Filner “works the crowd”

Audience listens to Bob Filner speak

Newly elected City Council President Todd Gloria

Jess Durfee, Christine Kehoe, Todd Gloria

Christine Kehoe and her wife, Julie Warren

Elaine Graybill

Linda Perine and Ingrid Croce

Maureen Steiner and Mike Growe

Sister Ida Know of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

Where’s the big hair? Sue Palmer plays boogie piano


When Bob Filner, long-time Democratic Congressmember and one of the most progressive voices in the House of Representatives, took the oath of office as Mayor of San Diego December 3, he did it with a difference. Instead of the formal stage of the Civic Theatre in the City Hall complex downtown, he booked the Balboa Park Club off Presidents’ Way and held his formal inauguration ceremony in its more proletarian environs. Then he got back in touch with his political roots — his first elective office was as a member of the board of the San Diego Unified School District — and did a tour of five schools across the city. After that his inaugural co-chairs, Nancy Chase and Bob Nelson, and “co-chair for neighborhood participation” Linda Perine took Filner on a whirlwind tour of five community events in La Jolla, Mira Mesa, Hillcrest, Euclid Avenue and San Ysidro, dramatizing Filner’s campaign promise to be a mayor for all San Diego’s neighborhoods, not just downtown and the affluent communities north of Interstate 8.
Filner began his speech after the swearing-in ceremony by introducing his fiancée, Bronwyn Ingram, and promising that they would be a team in the office. He also thanked his three major opponents in the mayor’s race, including City Councilmember Carl DeMaio, who placed first in the mayoral primary in June and narrowly lost the November runoff, “for your reform efforts and being so gracious as we have a change in administrations.” But he also made it clear that he rejected DeMaio’s confrontational attitude towards city workers and their unions. After thanking the city’s chief operations officer, Jay Goldstone, he told her, “The day of vilification of your employees is over.”
Calling his inauguration “the beginning of a new day for our city,” Filner thanked the City Council and the Mayor he’s replacing, former police chief Jerry Sanders, for helping San Diego overcome its years-long budget crunch. “After a decade of crises and cutbacks, we have a chance to look towards the future,” Filner said. “I can start with a balanced budget and a bond rating. We can talk about moving forward, but I couldn’t do that without the stability you have given us.” Filner acknowledged the city may still face financial challenges, including the end of the state’s redevelopment program and a bill passed in the state legislature denying construction aid money to cities that outlaw project-labor agreements (PLA’s) that protect local jobs, wages and union representation in the city’s construction projects.
San Diego voters passed a ban on PLA’s last June and also approved Proposition B, which ends guaranteed pensions for new city employees and replaces them with a 401(k)-type system. Filner’s main opponent, DeMaio, pushed Proposition B, former mayor Sanders signed on to it and all the major mayoral candidates except Filner (DeMaio, former Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher and San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis) supported it. Filner pledged to implement Proposition B but “to do it in an environment that respects and honors the hard work of our city employees, who are on the front lines. They keep us safe, they pick up our trash, they maintain our parks, they answer our 911 calls, they keep our libraries open. Thank you, city employees.”
Pledging “transparency” in city government, Filner said, “The real heart and soul of our city is its neighborhoods. They define our residents’ character and quality of life. As I traveled across the city during the long mayoral campaign, residents expressed near-unanimous frustration with the city’s neglect of the facilities and services that they depend on. To me it’s unacceptable, in what we call ‘America’s Finest City,’ that some neighborhoods still lack some basics like paved streets and streetlights. It’s unacceptable that some neighborhoods devastated by the wildfires in 2003 and 2007 still lack adequate fire facilities and equipment, and a lot of times we can’t even meet federal standards for emergency response times. It’s unacceptable that a police department that already has one of the state’s lowest ratios of officers to residents is still over 200 officers short of our budgeted staffing level, and we lack the resources right now to restore community-oriented policing.”
Filner mentioned other areas in which the city falls short of what it should be doing, including the closing of neighborhood libraries evenings and weekends; the closing of lifeguard towers and community restrooms during off-hours; and the city’s failure to equip first responders with the vehicles they need. “We’re going to complete the updates of our community plans, protect urban open spaces, reduce storm water pollution and make sure our neighborhoods are pedestrian- and bike-friendly,” he said. “We’re going to work with labor unions, working people and businesses to streamline our regulatory processes. We’re going to encourage partnerships between businesses and school districts. … We’re going to build on the innovations of companies like Qualcomm, push the initiative to install solar panels on city buildings and push for more maritime uses for the port.”
Other pledges Filner made in his opening speech were more problematic for the progressives in the audience, including campaign volunteers who helped to elect him. He pledged his support for expanding the San Diego Convention Center and “keeping the Chargers in San Diego” — even though that may not be possible unless the cash-strapped city gives a major public subsidy to a stadium project. He also committed to “a great celebration of Balboa Park’s 100th anniversary,” but said, “I want my tenure as Mayor to be remembered by how it makes its decisions. I want an administration where everyone is at the table, and the only prerequisite for participation is your love for the city and your interest in improving it. I understand the difference between being a legislator and being Mayor, but I still have things I feel passionately about.”
Filner closed his inaugural speech by quoting Robert F. Kennedy’s famous lines about how some people see things as they are and ask why, while others see things as they might be and ask why not. “Why not get serious about eliminating homelessness?” he said. “Why not make the combined San Diego-Tijuana region an incubator for an innovative new economy? Why not protect our beaches and ensure that every neighborhood is a safe place to work and play in?”

Filner Visits the Queer Community

Filner’s post-inaugural whirlwind tour of San Diego took him to five evening events, including one at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Center in Hillcrest. He was introduced by openly Queer City Councilmember Todd Gloria, who had an announcement of his own: that day the San Diego City Council elected him as its president, the first time an openly Queer member of the Council has filled that position. “Bob Filner made it clear that he was running to protect neighborhoods, and I intend to help him,” Gloria said.
Veteran Queer community activist and city commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez also was prominently featured at the Center event. He thanked Filner for attending the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual commemoration in November of Transgender people who have been killed over their gender identity, and the lighting of the memorial tree on World AIDS Day December 1. Murray Ramirez announced that December 3 is his birthday and said Filner’s inauguration was the best birthday present he’d ever had.
Referencing his entry into activism 50 years ago, when he rode on one of the Freedom Rides protesting racial segregation on interstate bus lines and spent two months in a Mississippi jail, Filner said, “The previous Mayor [Sanders] was a police chief. I started my political career in jail. I think that’s an improvement.” He said that the way he’d scheduled his first day as Mayor — first visiting schools and then participating in events all around the city — showed that “we’re going to live in the neighborhoods” during his time as Mayor.
The celebration at the Center was full of ironies. Two of Filner’s election opponents, DeMaio and Dumanis, are openly Queer, but DeMaio was endorsed by Right-wing Republicans with strongly held anti-Queer positions, including hotel owner and publisher Doug Manchester, attorney and activist Charles LiMandri, and talk-show host and former Mayor Roger Hedgecock. DeMaio got the endorsement of the San Diego Republican Central Committee, largely by attacking opponent Nathan Fletcher for his vote for a bill to require public schools to teach the history and achievements of prominent Queers. He was raked over the coals about this at a forum for the primary candidates at the Center, and anti-DeMaio activists posted a clip of the event on YouTube.
Manchester’s U-T San Diego — formerly the Union-Tribune until Manchester ordered its name changed, possibly because Manchester, a ferocious opponent of organized labor, didn’t want anything he owned to have the name “union” in it — strongly endorsed DeMaio. So did Gay San Diego, owned by DeMaio’s partner Johnathan Hale, which refused an ad from the San Diego Democrats for Equality because it listed Filner as one of its endorsed candidates. Ironically, when DeMaio filled out the questionnaire from U-T San Diego, he listed his marital status as “single.” Later, after community activists launched a campaign to boo DeMaio as he and Hale appeared in the LGBT Pride Parade, Hale published an “open letter” to the community saying that the people in the Queer community targeting DeMaio “are putting their allegiance to labor union politics above what is right for the LGBT community and our efforts to achieve full equality.”
With a lot of people in the room being Queer activists who campaigned for him against an openly Queer opponent, Filner told the crowd at the Center, “You’ve helped us in the election and you’re going to see some new faces at City Hall. There might even be a Gay face or two to make sure this city is open to everybody” — an odd statement to make in a city which has had at least one openly Queer person on the City Council since 1993 and where two Queer long-time city commissioners, Murray Ramirez and Al Best (whom Gloria acknowledged as the very first openly Queer person to run for the City Council), were in the audience.
“It’s going to be harder to govern than it was to win an election,” Filner said, repeating a warning he’d given at the San Diego Democrats for Equality’s Freedom Awards November 17. “We’re going to blaze a new path. When people may need to be educated, we’ve got to go door-to-door, we’re going to have to campaign. All the things we had to do to get elected, we need to do now to build community support and make sure we’re doing what people want. We need your help and participation.”

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Queer Democrats Celebrate Election Victories at Freedom Awards

Mayor-Elect Filner, Retiring State Senator Kehoe Stars of Annual Event


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Christine Kehoe and San Diego Democrats for Equality president Doug Case

Mayor-elect Bob Filner

Christine Kehoe

Jess Durfee

Eric Isaacson

Assemblymember-elect Dr. Shirley Weber and President’s Award winner Gloria Johnson

Craig Roberts

Don Mullen auctions off the flag he had signed by Queer elected officials at the 2012 Democratic National Convention

“Victory in All Four!” Four states’ voters break the jinx against marriage equality at the polls

What a difference two years makes! The predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality’s 2010 Freedom Awards, held in the aftermath of a disastrous election for Democrats both locally and nationwide, was so dispirited that the cover of its program actually said, “It Gets Better (for Democrats).” This year it did get better. The club had a lot to celebrate when it got together for the 2012 Freedom Awards November 17 at the 1202 club on University and Vermont in Hillcrest. President Obama had carried San Diego County, the first time any Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt had won this county’s presidential vote twice in a row. Bob Filner had won a close-fought race to become San Diego’s next Mayor — beating out Right-wing Queer Republican Carl DeMaio — and Sherri Lightner had easily won re-election to the San Diego City Council, preserving the Council’s Democratic majority.
Indeed, all four of the club’s top-priority candidates for November 2012 won: Filner, Lightner, Scott Peters — who beat longtime Republican Congressmember Brian Bilbray in one of the nation’s most heavily watched Congressional races, with lots of out-of-town money and supposedly “independent” super-PAC’s on both sides — and openly Gay Democrat Dave Roberts, who beat out Republican Steve Danon to become the first openly Queer member of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the first Democrat to sit on that board in 20 years. The club also won its fifth priority race: No on Proposition 32, the initiative that would have effectively eliminated organized labor’s ability to raise money for political action.
And the club had plenty to celebrate outside San Diego, too, including the election of Tammy Baldwin as U.S. Senator from Wisconsin — the first openly Queer person in the Senate (though in her victory speech she referred to herself, not as “Lesbian” or “LGBT,” but as “Gay”) — and Elizabeth Warren’s defeat of Republican Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts. What’s more, the jinx against marriage equality at the ballot box was definitively broken on November 6, 2012. Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington states approved laws allowing same-sex partners to marry each other, and in Minnesota an attempt to freeze the legislative ban on legal recognition of same-sex marriage into the state constitution was defeated. One of the slides shown at the Freedom Awards linked to http://thefour2012.com/, a Web site which coordinated nationwide support for the marriage votes in those states and is now celebrating the historic 4-for-4 sweep.
The exuberant mood was apparent throughout the Freedom Awards, from the introduction by current club president Doug Case — who opened the event by acknowledging the elected officials present and joking about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s recent charge that Obama bought his re-election by offering “gifts” to the groups that supported him — to the featured speakers. The second half of the event had been announced as a tribute to State Senator Christine Kehoe, who in 1993 won a seat on the San Diego City Council and thereby became the first openly Queer elected official in San Diego County. But her remarks and the slide show documenting the history of her campaigns, though well received, were overshadowed by the appearance of Mayor-elect Filner in the first half.
“It was a great election,” Filner said. “Dave Roberts was elected to the Board of Supervisors, Scott Peters gave us a three-Democrat Congressional delegation, and when Sherri Lightner and I won, we had the first Democratic Mayor and City Council majority in San Diego history. … This is going to be the biggest change in San Diego history. We’re going to have a new city and new people at the table. We’ve seen the precinct-by-precinct analysis by City Council districts, and it’s safe to say that I was elected because of the Gay community in San Diego.”
Filner acknowledged that the struggle for change begins, not ends, with an election victory. “I’m going to need your help even more in governing than I did in being elected,” he said. “To govern in a progressive way, we’re going to have to organize. We can’t just move ahead of everybody because then they’ll just pick us off. The newspapers, utilities and businesspeople will try to kill us off. We’re going to talk about government and public employees in a new way. We have not tapped the resources of our communities. … If we’re going to have neighborhoods and ethnic groups that have real power, if we’re going to have real public transit and deal with homelessness in a humane way, we have to work hard because the public has been brainwashed for so long about what is possible. To get things done, we’re going to have to accomplish even more.”
The awards ceremonies themselves occupied the first half of the program, and went faster than expected because two of the honorees — labor representative and Queer activist Brian Polejes and veteran club member and volunteer John Lockhart — were unable to attend. The award winners who were there included Jess Durfee, former Democrats for Equality president and currently finishing his unprecedented fourth term as chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party; attorney Eric Isaacson, honored for the friends-of-the-court briefs he submitted in marriage equality litigation in California; and Craig Roberts, former club president who was honored for his seven-year stint editing the Democrats for Equality’s newsletter.
Durfee, who won the A. Brad Truax Human Rights Awards, opened his speech by regretting that he never got to meet the award’s namesake, who served as club president in the early 1980’s and later died of complications from AIDS.  “But I’ve heard a lot about his contributions to the political landscape of San Diego,” Durfee said. “This is my home club, and I have always felt that the folks in this club had my back and gave me a level of support and confidence. I will always appreciate this club for the support, the critiques and the personal friendships, and as I end my tenure as Democratic Party chair, there couldn’t be a better election to go out on.”
Isaacson said his work on behalf of marriage equality began when “my wife and I asked the board of our church, the First Unitarian-Universalist Church, if we could represent them. You can expect the Right to file briefs against marriage equality that say their traditions go back to the Pilgrims — only today the church the Pilgrims founded welcomes same-sex couples and performs marriage ceremonies for them. The largest congregation of American Jews, Reform Judaism, supports marriage equality. I want to thank churches like the Unitarian-Universalists and United Church of Christ, and the people over the years who have taken churches that punished you for not toeing the line and turned them into churches that are loving and accepting.”
“I’m so honored to receive this the night we are honoring Chris Kehoe, because she got me started on this,” said Roberts. “The last 20 years of being involved in the club, and the seven years I’ve been working on the newsletter, have enriched my life in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined. I feel a great sense of community and family in this club.”
The tribute to Kehoe was kicked off by former club treasurer Mel Merrill, well known at club events for his wryly humorous talks. “Nine years ago I had the honor of being one of Christine’s roasters at an event celebrating her tenth anniversary in elective office,” Merrill said. “We probably want to cheer Chris up a little tonight. It must make you feel very old when your office files are packed up and delivered to the Lambda Archives, as they were last month, actually displacing a large part of the porn collection to make room for them.”
Merrill pointed out that this year five out of six Queer Congressmembers won their re-election bids, and between that and Tammy Baldwin’s U.S. Senate victory (Baldwin was the keynote speaker at the 1999 Freedom Awards, then called the Freedom Banquet, and gave a cover-story interview to Zenger’s Newsmagazine) it was a good year for Queer candidates for office. He also recalled that when he and many of the club’s members first met Baldwin, “all we could talk about was how much she reminded us of Chris.”
“What we have done since 1993 is we have finally built a Democratic majority that has turned San Diego County blue,” Kehoe said in her featured speech. “But I must say nothing in my time in San Diego has meant as much to me as the election of Bob Filner as Mayor. The San Diego Democrats for Equality are the core of that movement. You have been here through all those dark years of Republican Mayors. We haven’t had a Democratic Mayor or County Supervisor for 20 years, and now we’ve changed that.”
Kehoe profusely thanked her early supporters in the 1993 City Council campaign — particularly Bill Beck, Ruth Bornstein, Toni Atkins and Jeffrey Tom — as well as the openly Queer Councilmembers who have filled her seat since she was termed out, Atkins and Todd Gloria; and Bonnie Dumanis, who became San Diego’s first openly Queer Republican elected official when she won her race for San Diego County District Attorney. “We’ve got to make sure we still have people coming through the pipeline,” Kehoe said. “We need to bring in new people, keep Democratic voters in track, keep responding to the Right and look at every election, every City Council race.”
The President’s Award — the only one not announced in advance — went to veteran activist Gloria Johnson, who’s been involved with the club for over three decades. The event concluded with club member Don Mullen auctioning off the rainbow flag he had had autographed by openly Queer elected officials at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where he served as a delegate. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

“Killing by Remote Control”: Medea Benjamin Exposes Drones

Speaks in San Diego Just After Her Return from Pakistan, Drone Target #1


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Our trip to Pakistan was the first time any Americans had been there to apologize for the drone strikes,” said long-time peace activist Medea Benjamin Saturday, October 20 at the Church of the Brethren in City Heights, San Diego. Co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink, Benjamin has just published a book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, exposing not only the lethality of drones — remote-controlled aircraft, often equipped with missiles that directly target individuals on the ground — but the fundamental immorality of this sort of warfare and the way drones make war more “thinkable” because with them, one country can attack another without putting any of their own servicemembers at risk of death or injury.
“To have a group of Americans go to such a dangerous place was remarkable,” Benjamin said. “We had 60 people wanting to go and we didn’t think the Pakistani government was going to give us visas. There were people putting pressure on from both the U.S. and Pakistan, and we finally got our visas. … The U.S. government didn’t want us to go on this trip, and they were very open about that. I’ve had meetings with U.S. officials talking about ‘the alleged drones.’” Eventually Benjamin’s group numbered 34, all but one of whom took the trip from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, to the northwest frontier region of Waziristan, which has suffered the greatest number of drone attacks.
“The acting U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Hoagland, met with us and wanted to impress on us how dangerous it was to go to Waziristan,” Benjamin recalled. “I said to the group, ‘If anyone doesn’t want to make the trip to Waziristan, don’t do it.’ We were going to have plenty of work to do in Islamabad, including meeting with women’s groups and drone victims. Of the 34 people, 33 wanted to go. The day before, the U.S. security person wanted to meet with us, and told us, ‘We have credible information that the militants are going to attack you.’ I asked him what the source of the information was, and he said he couldn’t tell me. Once again, I told the members of the group they didn’t have to go on the trip, and again everybody but one decided to go.”
Benjamin’s group had a dual agenda for making the 14-hour trip from Islamabad to Waziristan. One was to document the brutal effects of drone warfare on the villages and their residents — information she said the mainstream U.S. media have carefully kept from Americans. The other was to let people in the region know that there were Americans who didn’t approve of the drone strikes. “When we talked with people individually, it was remarkable how necessary it was to go to the areas where the drones are used, and apologize,” Benjamin said. “We went to the tribal regions, where no Americans had been since 9/11. After our first day, the government blocked off the area where we had planned to go, so we held a rally at our campsite and people were chanting, ‘Welcome, welcome, we want peace.’”
The trip to Pakistan to visit the drone-targeted areas personally was, said Benjamin, “the kind of citizen diplomacy that’s so important” to building a worldwide constituency for peace. “For one week, we were front-page news in the Pakistani press and on Pakistani TV,” she said. “There was a conservative guy who said, ‘If you are here to win the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people, you have won mine.’ Another person said we had done more for the U.S.’s image in Pakistan than all the aid money the U.S. has sent to the Pakistani government.” Benjamin described the area she and her group visited as “Ground Zero for the drones” — the place where there are more drone attacks than anywhere in the world.

The Brave New World of Drones

Though there were experiments with unmanned military aircraft as early as World War I, and in the 1930’s all the major powers were using remote-controlled planes to give their pilots target practice, drone warfare really exploded after September 11, 2001. “When 9/11 happened, there were only 50 drones in the Pentagon’s arsenal; today, there are over 10,000,” Benjamin said. She admitted that there are potentially positive aspects to drones — “They can fight forest fires and find illegal rainforest logging in Brazil” — but with drones, as with so many aspects of modern technology, “the munitions industry is driving” drone development. Indeed, the General Atomics plant in Poway, a San Diego suburb, is where the Predator attack drone is made — and the San Diego Veterans for Peace (SDVFP) is targeting the plant with a demonstration every Thursday, 4 to 6 p.m., on the corner of Scripps Poway Parkway and General Atomics Way. (For information, visit the SDVFP Web site at http://www.sdvfp.org/.)
The original use of drones in the U.S. “war on terror” was for surveillance, Benjamin explained, but that changed when drone builders realized they could attach missiles to them and fire them at targets on the ground, just like a conventional piloted plane. “The war in Iraq provided the U.S. military a platform for perfecting its own deadly drones,” Benjamin wrote in her book. “In 2003 and 2004, the Army flew UAV’s [‘unmanned aerial vehicles,’ military-speak for drones] about 1,500 hours a month, according to USA Today; by 2006, that number had risen to about 9,000 hours a month. … In Iraq, spy drones were used for everything from protecting oil fields to tracking supposed insurgents to distinguishing between ‘plastics production … and homemade explosives production.’ Lethal drones were sent to target government buildings in Baghdad and to kill militants firing upon U.S. positions.”
According to Benjamin, the U.S. military became more reliant on drones — not less — as it started to draw down its forces in Iraq in 2008. At the same time, as the war in Afghanistan heated up and President Obama deployed massive numbers of new U.S. troops there in a copy of President Bush’s “surge” strategy in Iraq, the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan became increasingly reliant on drones. “By 2010 the Air Force was flying at least 20 Predator drones over stretches of hostile Afghan territory each day, providing a daily dose of some 500 hours of video,” Benjamin wrote. “Most drones were used for surveillance purposes … but they were also used to target low-level Taliban fighters in remote areas and to support U.S. troops in firefights. According to Air Force figures, there were 74 drone strikes in 2007, 183 in 2008, and 219 in 2009.”
While the U.S. military has used video games to train its fighters for decades, by using drones they’ve made the experience of actual combat into a grim sort of video game. “It’s like bad science fiction become real, to think that the pilots of these drones are sitting in air-conditioned rooms … for 10 to 12 hours a day, looking at a screen,” Benjamin said. “They might be based outside of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, or Hancock Air Force base in upstate New York, or about a dozen other bases, and these pilots are really doing this surveying and pressing the kill button by day, and going home to their families at night.” The only real difference between playing a video game and piloting a drone is that when the drone pilot presses the controller button and fires a missile, real people die on the other end.
According to Benjamin, this remote-control killing puts a stress on the people doing it. “Many of these pilots are getting PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] just like soldiers on the battlefield,” she said. “And in some ways I would guess that’s a good thing, because it’s hard for them to have this day job when you’re killing, and then think you can go home and just be a good husband and father, and it’s not going to affect you mentally. There are other pilots — and I’ve talked to some of them — who think this is just dandy, it’s a great way to do it and it’s nice to be able not to put your own life at risk. But the main complaint the drone pilots had when a study was done was boredom. They said it was really boring to be sitting and looking at these screens for hours on end, when a lot of them signed up for the military because they wanted to be in the battle.”
Because they’re physically thousands of miles away from the battlefield, Benjamin said, drone pilots don’t have to know anything about the lives and culture of the people they’re fighting and killing by remote control. “They’re told certain people are on a ‘hit list’ developed by President Obama himself on what’s called ‘Terror Tuesday,’ where [Obama and his staff] look at profiles of alleged terrorists and vote whether to put them on the ‘hit list,’” Benjamin explained. “There is also the ‘signature strike,’ in which drone pilots are able to kill people on their own authority, on the basis of ‘suspicious behavior’” — which, she said, could mean something as simple as a group of bearded males wearing long robes meeting outdoors.
Though the countries where the U.S. has made the greatest use of drones are Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Benjamin said that they were also used in Libya — where Obama said he didn’t need to ask Congress to authorize U.S. involvement under the War Powers Act because he was “only” sending drones and therefore no U.S. servicemembers were physically at risk. According to Benjamin, the U.S. has also used drones in Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines, and is building bases for drones in Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Burundi and Uganda. And it’s not just the Army and the Air Force that are flying drone missions; a lot of U.S. drone strikes are being run by the CIA, and since their drone activities are secret there’s no way of knowing just how much the U.S. is using drones, where they’re being used or what the U.S. is doing with them.
And the U.S. isn’t the only country in the world that has or uses military drones. Israel has used them against the Palestinians in the occupied territories for years. Indeed, according to Benjamin, Israeli defense companies advertise their drones for sale to other countries by saying they’ve been “battle-tested.” In her book, Benjamin wrote that over 50 countries have the technological capability to build drones, and many of them — including Russia, Turkey, China, India, Iran, Great Britain and France — either have or are developing weaponized drones. Iran is a special case because they got drone technology from the U.S.; when an American drone was shot down over Iran, they were able to reverse-engineer it and develop the ability to build copies.
What’s more, there’s a major push to use U.S. drones in the United States itself. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had been loath to give permission for law enforcement agencies and others to fly drones in American airspace, mainly because of the possibility that drones will collide with commercial aircraft in mid-air or crash and do damage when they fall to earth. But the military contractors who build drones adopted a familiar solution to that problem: they used their lobbyists to sell Congress on passing a bill overriding the pesky regulators and allowing drones to fly over the U.S. It’s been an easy sell, according to Benjamin, because war-industry lobbyists have been able to convince Congressmembers that drones in their district mean jobs and economic growth.
The drone lobby and what’s been called the “drone caucus” in Congress — officially known as the Unmanned Systems Caucus — got a big Valentine’s Day present on February 14, 2012 when Obama signed an FAA reauthorization bill that specifically requires the agency to integrate drones into U.S. airspace by September 15, 2015. “The bill also requires expedited access for public users, like law enforcement, firefighters and emergency responders,” Benjamin wrote in her book. “Within 90 days, it must allow them to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they are kept under an altitude of 400 feet and meet other requirements. The U.S. drone lobby group that helped draft the bill … was delighted; commercial airlines and pilots were not. They worry that the quick push to integrate drones will not only take away jobs, but lead to accidents.”
Even before this bill passed, Benjamin said, law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. were buying drones and using them for surveillance. The Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida already bought a 20-pound drone in 2011 and applied to the FAA for permission to get two more. Other police departments are buying helicopter drones to photograph and videotape large swaths of countryside at will. Benjamin’s book quotes Michael Buscher, CEO of drone maker Vanguard Defense Industries, that future U.S. police drones will be equipped with Tasers and so-called “stun batons” that will actually be able to shoot at and immobilize people on the ground. Benjamin’s October 20 audience groaned at the thought of who police are likely to target with this sort of drone technology: peace activists, Occupy members, medical marijuana growers and anyone who looks like a sort of person police officers don’t like. “By 2015, there might be 30,000 drones in American skies,” Benjamin said.

The Myth of “Smart Drones”

According to Benjamin, polls have shown that 83 percent of Americans, including a majority of self-described “liberal Democrats,” approve their use against “terrorist suspects” — even though, as she pointed out, the word “suspect” means someone who hasn’t been convicted of anything or given any more “due process” than being identified as a “terrorist” or “militant” by an itchy-fingered drone pilot or by the Obama administration on “Terror Tuesday.” She cited a study by Stanford and New York University, “Living Under Drones” (available online at http://livingunderdrones.org/download-report/) that quoted President Obama’s “terror czar,” John O. Brennan, as saying that missile-armed drones have an unprecedented ability to “distinguish … effectively between an al-Qaeda terrorist and innocent civilians,” and that they can conduct strikes with “astonishing” and “surgical” precision.
“This narrative is false,” the “Living Under Drones” authors bluntly wrote. “Following nine months of intensive research … this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current U.S. drone strike policies. Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and first-hand testimony about the negative impacts U.S. policies are having on the civilians living under drones.” According to the “Living Under Drones” study, of the 2,562 to 3,325 people killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan between June 2004 and September 2012, between 474 and 881 were civilians — including 176 children. The study also claimed that only 2 percent of the victims of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan were on the “high-value list” of known major terrorists.
Benjamin claims that the reason the Obama administration claims the drone strikes are targeting “militants” is that they “have admitted that they consider every male of military age in the area where we’re using drones to be a ‘militant.’” She also noted that the Stanford/NYU “Living Under Drones” study documents the extent to which drones themselves are a weapon of terror. “People’s lives are made miserable by drones hovering overhead 24/7,” Benjamin said. “Some families are afraid to send their children to school, or to go to markets, weddings, community gatherings or funerals, all of which are being specifically targeted.” What’s more, she said, American drone pilots routinely do so-called “double-tap” strikes, in which after they’ve hit a target once they launch a second round of missiles to target the people coming in to rescue the people hit in the first strike. She said that on her recent trip to Pakistan she personally heard stories of people injured in drone attacks waving away potential rescuers for fear the rescuers would be hit by the “double-tap.”
In both her talk and her book, Benjamin extensively documented several instances in which people working against terrorism and for peace were killed by drone strikes. “One jirga [tribal council] in which a number of tribal leaders came together to resolve a mining dispute was targeted by a drone strike that killed over 40 community leaders,” she said. Her book tells the story of Karim Khan, who was targeted as a suspected terrorist (apparently in a case of mistaken identity) and whose house was hit by a drone strike. Khan wasn’t there that night — he was in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad — but his brother and son were killed, as was a stonemason from out of town who was doing repair work on the village mosque and whom the Khans had put up for the night.
Benjamin also tells the story of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old boy who traveled from south Waziristan to Islamabad for a “Grand Waziristan Jirga,” in which over 350 villagers (including members of 60 families that had been victimized by drone strikes) and learned photography so he could document the damage done by drones. “Tariq had a personal motivation,” Benjamin wrote in her book. “Eighteen months earlier, his cousin Anwar Ullah had been killed by an unmanned drone as he drove his motorcycle through the village of Norak.” But just three days after he returned home, Aziz and his 12-year-old cousin, Wahreed Rehman, were killed in their car by a drone-launched missile just a few hundred yards away from the home of his newlywed aunt, whom he had just visited.
“Thanks to the fateful meeting in Islamabad days before, the death of those boys — unlike other drone victims never mentioned or mourned beyond the village — was reported in newspapers around the world,” Benjamin wrote. “American lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who had just met the boy in Islamabad, wrote a compelling New York Times op-ed. … A U.S. official acknowledged to ABC News that the attack was not a mistake — the CIA had chosen this target because the two people in the car were supposedly militants. Pratap Chatterje, a journalist … who met Tariq at the Islamabad meeting, was dumbfounded. ‘If this 16-year-old was indeed a suspected terrorist, then why wasn’t he arrested in Islamabad?’ Chatterje asked.”
The real reason why the U.S. is killing supposed “militants” with drone strikes instead of arresting them, Benjamin suggested, is that U.S. officials find it “cleaner” — that’s actually the word the Obama adminstration’s lawyers use — to execute them summarily rather than take them alive and then be faced with the knotty issue of when, where and how to try them. (It’s been widely reported that the SEAL commando team that raided Osama bin Laden were under orders to kill him, rather than take him alive, for the same reason.) “Since he’s been President, Obama has only sent one person to Guantánamo — because he’s decided it’s easier to kill people with drones,” Benjamin acidly commented. She said the Obama administration has asserted it has a right to kill anyone, anywhere in the world — including a U.S. citizen — solely on its say-so, without any legal process involved.
Speaking two weeks before Obama’s re-election, Benjamin made it clear that she regards him as an enemy of freedom that deserves to be targeted by peace protesters just as his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, was. “We cannot afford to give a honeymoon to anyone who wins this election,” she said. “We have to be out in the streets demanding an end to the wars and the fossil-fuel economy, and a state of peace and a green-energy economy. … We could cut our military budget in half and give every young American a free college education. What we could do in the world to help people would cost only a fraction of what we’re doing overseas now to get people to hate us. … I know I’m speaking to the choir here, but sometimes the choir needs to be re-energized.”

Jon Fanestil, San Diego Foundation for Change

A Pretty Good Election, but the Right Still Rules


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

After at least a year and a half of serious (more or less) Presidential campaigning — highlighted in the final days when supporters of President Obama dredged up a comment Mitt Romney had made in a Republican debate on June 14, 2011 suggesting that he didn’t think disaster relief was a proper function of the federal government — and an election season editor Dave Rolland of San Diego CityBeat called “cruelly, inhumanely, incomprehensibly, irrationally long,” on November 6 the mountain labored and brought forth … more of the same. Barack Obama remains President, the House of Representatives is still controlled by Republicans, the Senate is still in Democratic hands and the partisan gridlock voters on both sides complained about beforehand is all too alive and well. Ironically, according to the Pennsylvania Weekly, more people voted for Democrats to represent them in the House than for Republicans — 53,952,240 (50.25 percent) for Democrats versus 53,402,643 (49.74 percent) for Republicans — but the GOP kept its majority by gerrymandering election districts in states where they had control of the governorship and the state legislature.
This year’s election actually turned out pretty well for progressives nationwide, in California and especially in San Diego County. Not only did Obama fend off Romney’s challenge, but California voters passed Proposition 30, Governor Jerry Brown’s package of temporary tax increases to ward off drastic education cuts. They rejected Proposition 32, a cynical attack on organized labor’s ability to fund political action disguised as a “campaign finance reform” measure; and also Proposition 38, the rival tax-increase measure introduced by one-percenter Molly Munger (half-brother of key Proposition 32 supporter Charles Munger, Jr.) quite possibly as a stalking horse to defeat Proposition 30.
The statewide vote had its disappointments. Californians responded to the siren song of food-industry propaganda and rejected Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of genetically modified foods. They also rejected Proposition 34, which would have abolished the state’s death penalty and replaced it with life imprisonment without parole. But even those initiatives lost by surprisingly slender margins — a pleasant surprise, especially for Californians with long enough memories to remember when any initiative to expand the death penalty would pass by a 2-to-1 margin instead of the mere 5 percent by which 34 lost.
Locally, things went even better for Democrats — who’d been scared in June when Republican Scott Sherman won the San Diego City Council District 7 seat outright in the primary and Councilmember Carl DeMaio’s Proposition B, eviscerating what’s left of San Diego’s city employee pension system and imposing a five-year wage freeze, passed with two-thirds of the vote. Not only did Obama become the second Democratic Presidential candidate in history to carry San Diego County, but Bob Filner won the Mayor’s race over DeMaio by a four-point margin. Embattled Democratic Councilmember Sherri Lightner hung on to her seat — and to the Democratic majority on the Council — by a substantial nine-point margin. Dave Roberts became not only the first openly Queer person elected to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors but the first Democrat on that board in 20 years. And Democrat Scott Peters won the county’s hardest-fought and biggest-spending Congressional race over Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray.

The Right’s Ideas Still Rule

But though in many ways the November 2012 election looked good for Democrats — not just moderates like Peters but strong progressives like Filner — the winning Democrats, including Obama, will still be playing on largely Republican, corporate-Right and Tea Party turf. The continued dominance of Right-wing ideology and the corporate money behind it was exemplified by the issues that weren’t discussed in the election, particularly in the Presidential campaign. Not once during any of the three debates between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, nor during the vice-presidential candidates’ debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, were the words “global warming” or “climate change” spoken: not by the candidates, not by the moderators, not by the carefully vetted “audience members” in the so-called “town hall” format of the second debate.
You’d never guess from the campaign that there’s a case that climate change is the issue — one which, if the scientific consensus that it’s happening is correct, will force major changes in the economy and society if the human race is to survive at all. Since the election, Obama has made two fleeting references to it, one in his victory speech and one in a few public comments on Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the East Coast during the closing weeks of the campaign. But these comments — including Obama’s promise that nothing his administration does about global warming will get in the way of improving the economy and creating jobs — only underscored the silence with which it had been greeted (save for Romney’s sneering attacks on Obama as the candidate who had supposedly promised he’d stop the oceans) throughout the campaign. Indeed, Obama’s framing of the issue bought into the Right-wing line that protecting the environment in general, and dealing with climate change in particular, is somehow opposed to job creation and economic growth — which is nonsense, but it’s what the radical Right and its corporate funders want you to believe.
Nor did you hear much in the Presidential campaign about the growing inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. Though the American political process is not as totally controlled by corporations and super-rich people as many on the Left believe — there’s enough residual resentment of the 1 percent, and especially the 0.01 percent, that Romney’s status as not only rich but super-duper-ice-cream-scooper-rich probably hurt him — it’s clear that the priorities of the corporate elite shape and dictate the limits of American political discourse. Curbing the power of private insurers over health care, breaking up the big banks through antitrust suits, prosecuting the titans of finance who ran the American economy into the ground, protecting the rights of private-sector workers to organize unions and bargain collectively, and amending the U.S. Constitution to end the sham of “corporate personhood” weren’t about to be advanced by any candidate or campaign with any hope of actually winning the presidency or any other major office.
Which isn’t to say that elections don’t matter. When Zenger’s endorsed Ralph Nader for President in 2000 over George W. Bush and Al Gore (and I caught hell from my friends in the Democratic Party for doing so) it was reasonable to argue that there was no substantial difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Twelve years later, the difference has become a yawning gap — not because the Democrats have moved to the Left but because the Republicans have become so hard-line Right they’ve repudiated much of what they used to stand for. The aggressive Right that started in the 1930’s, in response to Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal and the huge Left-wing movement outside the electoral system that pressured the Democrats into far more radical programs than they would have adopted on their own, has proven over the decades that it’s a resilient, committed movement that has steadily grown in influence and power despite several reverses.
The modern Right survived World War II, when many of its early leaders were accused (with reason) of sedition for either passively supporting or actively opposing America’s involvement in the struggle against fascism. It survived the disgrace of its first major elected official, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), in the 1950’s. It survived the landslide defeat of its first Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, in 1964. The electoral coalition between economic libertarians committed to lassiez-faire capitalism — “freeing” the rich from all restrictions and regulations on their ability to make money, no matter how many people below them economically suffer lost jobs, decimated social safety nets, deprivation of health care and a ruined environment as a result — along with religious social conservatives and out-and-out racists came together in 1968, when Richard Nixon and George Wallace between them won 57 percent of the Presidential vote to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 — which also gave Republicans an outright majority in the Senate and, in alliance with conservative Democrats, a working majority in the House — completed the reshaping of American politics in the Right-wing image that has dominated ever since.
Since 1968 the Republicans have won seven Presidential elections to the Democrats’ five, but if anything this statistic underestimates the long-term influence the Republicans, and particularly their libertarian and social-conservative Right wings, have had over national politics. The extent to which the Republicans have been able, by holding this seemingly unlikely coalition together (if it had an honest slogan, it would be, “Get government out of the boardrooms — and into the bedrooms, where it belongs!”), to dominate American politics and push it ever farther Rightward is shown by Obama’s health care and climate-change initiatives. Obama adopted as his own a health insurance reform plan first concocted by the Right-wing Heritage Foundation and first implemented in Massachusetts by his 2012 election opponent, Mitt Romney — and he couldn’t get a single Republican to vote for the Republicans’ health care plan. He also adopted the unwieldy “cap-and-trade” alternative to a straight-out tax on carbon as a response to climate change — and he couldn’t even get enough Democrats on board to overwhelm the solid Republican opposition to what had originally been a Republican idea.

Ruling Class Isn’t a Monolith

Leftists tend to write about the “ruling class” or the “corporate elite” or some such term as if it were a monolith. It isn’t. Its members may be united on the need to preserve capitalism in general and their fortunes in particular, and beginning in the early 1970’s they moved pretty much in lock-step away from the relative class peace of the 1940’s and 1950’s towards a more aggressive stance to drive down wages, eliminate “burdensome” government regulations and drive organized labor out of existence. But there’s a world of difference between relatively enlightened capitalists like Warren Buffett and George Soros on one side and libertarian maniacs like the Koch brothers on the other. Indeed, one of the most dramatic developments in the ruling class in the last two decades has been the emergence of people like the Kochs who have read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (a Right-wing novel in which the world’s capitalists disappear and hide out in a mountain redoubt in Colorado until the world realizes it can’t do without them) and believe it.
There used to be a lot of people in the ruling class who tolerated politically populist rhetoric from politicians as long as they could be assured that the politicians who screamed “change!” the loudest on the stump wouldn’t bring it about once in office. No more. As Richard Eskow wrote in a September 19 blog post on ourfuture.org, not only do the Right-wing radicals in the ruling class want even more of the nation’s wealth and income than they have now, “they want adoration. From the looks of it, nothing short of an Roman Imperial cult — complete with their apotheosis as state deities upon their death — would satisfy them. Obama’s corporate-friendly policies, which have protected their wealth and protected them from judgment, aren’t enough. They want him to pledge his fealty on the White House steps — or they’ll destroy him.”
And if that seems like hyperbolic exaggeration from a Left-wing blogger, let’s hear it from one of the super-rich: private equity (read: “hedge fund”) manager Bob Israel. In a November 2 Los Angeles Times article, Israel explained that the reason Wall Street’s campaign donations were going overwhelmingly to Romney despite all Obama had done for them (keeping the big banks big, bailing them out with billions in taxpayers’ money, refusing to prosecute any of their executives, and not restoring any of the New Deal-era financial regulations that kept American capitalism relatively honest and healthy between the 1930’s and the 1970’s) was that Obama “has really been harassing businesses” — not in actual policy, but on the campaign trail. “The history of our country is not to hold up wealthy people as villains,” Israel said, “but as beacons, as magnets, as examples you’d want to emulate.”
Israel is a lousy historian — check out the late 19th century cartoons of Thomas Nast (whose last name contributed the word “nasty” to the English language) and his vicious caricatures of the robber barons of the time — but his attitudes, and those of the people who attended Mitt Romney’s now-notorious May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida, are indicative of many of today’s elite capitalists. The sneering contempt with which Romney attacked the “47 percent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That — that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them,” is a good indication of the attitude of much of America’s modern-day ruling class.

GOP to People of Color and Youth: Don’t Vote!

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the mainstream media about the Republicans’ supposed dilemma after the 2012 campaign. Most of the explanations of Romney’s loss center around two facts: the demographic shifts in the American population — we’re now a younger and considerably less white country than we used to be, and in demonizing people of color in general and Latinos in particular the Republicans have allegedly shot themselves in the foot with growing segments of the electorate — and also that Obama’s people had a better “ground game”: that they worked harder and got more people knocking on doors to bring out their potential voters. So far the Republican response has been to do more of what they tried to do before the 2012 election: strike back at the growing number of younger and darker voters by preventing them from voting at all.
Just three days after the election the U.S. Supreme Court announced it’s going to take a case on whether Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is constitutional. Section 5 identifies 18 states with particularly strong histories of disenfranchising African-American voters and requires them to “pre-clear” any changes in their election laws with the federal government to make sure they don’t have a racially discriminatory effect. It was under this law that a court set aside the Virginia legislature’s attempt to impose a photo ID requirement on its voters — and that decision quite likely enabled Obama to carry Virginia in 2012. In the run-up to 2012 the Republican governors and state legislators passed photo-ID requirements, cut back on early registration and voting, and passed other laws designed to hamper youths, low-income people and non-whites from voting at all. One Republican State Senator in Pennsylvania openly boasted that the photo ID bill he introduced would enable Mitt Romney to carry the state — and it might have if a judge hadn’t temporarily set it aside.
It’s clear that for some Republicans — including the five-justice Republican majority on the current Supreme Court — the long-term, or at least medium-term, solution to the changing demographics of the U.S. electorate is to make it as hard as possible, preferably altogether impossible, for those younger, poorer and darker people to vote at all. And even if they do vote and Democrats get elected, decades of Republican ideological hegemony and the enormous power of Big Money in our elections process — made even worse by the 2010 Citizens United decision and the crushing weight of the mega-rich through super-PAC’s and so-called “social welfare” organizations that don’t even have to disclose their donors — ensure that they won’t be able to do much of anything.

Left Wills Itself Into Impotence

It also doesn’t help that the American Left has been reduced to a pitiful remnant of its former self. In the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s there were mass Left movements that put pressure on Democrats and Republicans alike and pushed them to places they otherwise wouldn’t have gone: antitrust legislation to break up the huge concentrations of corporate power; Social Security and minimum-wage legislation; acceptance of the right of workers to organize into unions and bargain collectively; effective controls on the ability of banks and other financial institutions to speculate with the 99 percent’s money; an end to racial segregation and at least the beginnings of legal and social equality for people of color, women and Queers. Now, however, the “Left” in the U.S. is a series of tiny debating societies, cut off from its roots among working-class people and centered around academe.
What’s more, it’s willed itself into impotence by consciously rejecting any effective involvement in electoral politics (which means, in the U.S. political system, participating in the Democratic Party) and adopting an insane way of governing itself based on so-called “internal democracy” and “consensus,” “non-hierarchical” or “horizontal” decision-making. This is the big reason why the big mass protest movement that arose from the economic collapse of the 2000’s was from the Right — the Tea Party — and the Occupy movement became yet another of the Left’s occasional missed opportunities that fizzled out and had virtually no long-term effect on U.S. politics at all. Unless the Left does some fundamental rethinking of these boneheaded strategic and tactical decisions — and abandons the delusion that choices of political strategy and tactics are issues of profound morality, which has led many U.S. Leftists to reject either the Democratic Party or involvement in electoral politics at all — there will never be the kind of mass U.S. Left that helped push progressive reforms through unwilling legislatures in the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s.
This only adds to the bind America faces as it comes to grips with the decline of its imperial ambitions at the hands of both nature (the ultra-wasteful fossil-fuel economy on which the U.S. built its economic and industrial supremacy is no longer sustainable) and money (as the U.S. becomes ever more reliant on foreign borrowing to keep its ultra-rich ultra-rich). Despite Obama’s two Presidential victories, America remains under the thumb of a Right-wing ideology that regards environmental protection as a luxury we can’t afford; vast inequalities of wealth and income as either the impersonal workings of “The Market” or no less than what the rich deserve; organized labor as a 20th century idea whose time has come and gone; and access to health care as a privilege, not a right. The real takeaway of 2012 is how far Right the U.S. has moved long-term — to the point where the relatively progressive platforms of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and even Richard Nixon in 1968 are far to the Left of anything any major-party Presidential candidate would dare advocate today.