Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: Year of Crash and Burn

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org

If nothing else, 2013 will go down in history as a year that showed up just how silly the whole notion of punditry is. People read columns like this in hopes that the people writing them have some special wisdom that will not only explain to them what’s happening in politics now but what’s likely to happen in the future. Often we’re as clueless as anyone else. As Doyle McManus recently admitted in the Los Angeles Times, at this time last year he was expecting President Obama to be able to take full advantage of his resounding re-election victory and the Republicans in Congress to moderate their opposition and maybe even work with him to get things done.
Instead, the big news of 2013 is the systematic frustration of virtually all Obama’s ambitions by a Republican Party dominated by a highly ideological Right wing bent on making a revolution. Don’t believe what you sometimes read about “divisions” in the Republican Party between a supposedly moderate old-line business wing and the zealots of the Tea Party. The GOP is firmly united in its determination to return America to the robber-baron age of the 1880’s, when American politics was frankly aimed at making the rich richer and ignoring the effect of that on everyone else. The Republicans in Congress want ultimately to eliminate Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance and the rest of America’s meager attempt at building a social welfare state. They also want to abolish all taxes on corporations, all regulations on business and all laws protecting labor and the environment. The so-called “business Republican” and “Tea Party” factions differ only on how fast they want to do all that.
That’s the reason for the unified Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare” — even though it’s based on ideas first cooked up by the Right-wing Heritage Foundation and first put into practice by Obama’s 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts. It’s not that they’re upset over any particular aspect of Obamacare, or that they give a damn whether it’s working or not — though snafus like the botched launch of the healthcare.gov Web site and Obama’s inability to keep his promise that if you liked your current health insurance, you’d get to keep it are godsends to the Republicans in their never-ending quest to make the law look bad. No, the reason they hate it so much and have voted to repeal it — what is it now, 46 times? — is that Obamacare promises a major expansion of the social welfare state at a time when the Republican Party is committed to abolishing the welfare state altogether.
No issue in 2013 showed off the perils of punditry better than Obamacare. When the Republicans in Congress managed to get the government shut down through most of October, the move was so wildly unpopular that the punditry en masse proclaimed that the GOP had rendered itself irrelevant and the Democrats would be able to keep their Senate majority and win back the House of Representatives just by showing up. Then the Obamacare Web site had its disastrous launch — and the same so-called “experts” were declaring it the doom of the Obama presidency and telling us it was now a lead-pipe cinch that Republicans will hold on to the House in 2014, grab control of the Senate and make the last two years of the Obama administration a living hell for him. If anything, the successive failures from both parties have sent both the President’s and Congress’s poll ratings down — the President’s to the worst levels of Obama’s term and Congress’s to the worst levels ever.
In other countries where the two major parties have so disgraced themselves, from Germany in the early 1930’s to Venezuela in the 1980’s, the result has often been the emergence of a charismatic leader outside the major parties winning popular support and setting himself up as a dictator. As much as political activists in general and progressive activists in particular like to bemoan the entrenched nature of the Republican and Democratic parties — including the ways they’ve written U.S. elections law to make organizing any other party a colossal waste of time — and the general apathy and political cluelessness of much of the American population, those may be the only things saving us from a Right or Left dictatorship in the near future.
Locally, 2013 will be remembered as the year of Bob Filner’s spectacular crash and burn as mayor of San Diego. It’s hard to imagine what’s most bizarre about that story: that Filner, a hero to progressive San Diegans for over 30 years, should have been laid low by a character flaw that, as described by woman after woman who appeared in the local media, approaches an insane compulsion; or that the lead in attacking him was taken, not by his political opposition, but by activists in his own party who declared war on him in a press conference with the fury of medieval witchhunters.
It was a story that hit me particularly hard because I ended up permanently disillusioned about two people who had been longtime heroes of mine. Bob Filner, whom I’d thought of as a fearless progressive crusader whose arrogance at least came with the territory of fighting for the right causes, was revealed as at worst a sexual compulsive with a warped view of women and at best an insensitive boor. And his principal accuser, Donna Frye, came off as Cotton Mather in drag, out not merely to drive him from office but consign him to the worst circle in hell without a trace of compassion for what clearly, if the allegations against Filner are true, is a mental illness.
Whether 2013 was a good year for Queer rights depends on where you live. If you’re in the U.S. or western Europe, the answer was definitely yes: the number of states allowing same-sex couples to marry zoomed up from 10 at the start of 2013 to 18 by its end — including, of all places, Utah, where a federal judge found the state’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional on grounds of equal protection and — unlike Vaughan Walker in California in 2010 — did not “stay” (i.e., delay) his own decision to give the state a chance to appeal. (Remember that Utah is also the state which in 1890 had to be forced by the threat of a federal invasion to limit its legal recognition of marriage to one man and only one woman.)
While it wasn’t the sweeping Loving v. Virginia-style ruling Queer marriage advocates were hoping for, the U.S. Supreme Court did rule in June that the provision of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DoMA) — passed in 1996 by a Republican-dominated Congress and signed into a law by a Democratic President, Bill Clinton — limiting federal recognition of marriage to unions of one man and one woman was unconstitutional. What’s more, they ruled against it on the correct grounds; instead of saying that the federal law was an imposition on the historic right of states to define marriage for themselves, they said it violated the equal protection rights of same-sex couples who live in states where they can legally marry. That makes it likely that when they get a case challenging the other half of DoMA, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states, the Supremes will throw that out too.
And by deciding that the proponents of California’s anti-marriage Proposition 8 didn’t have standing to defend it in court once the government of California had refused to do so, the Supreme Court brought marriage equality back to the nation’s largest state. No longer are my husband Charles and I an orphan couple, given “special rights” because we married during the five-month “window” between the time the California Supreme Court’s pro-marriage decision became effective in June 2008 and the passage of Prop. 8 five months later. It’s true that this rationale could be a double-edged sword for progressives; one could readily imagine the voters of California passing a Colorado-style initiative legalizing marijuana for all uses, the state government refusing to defend it against a federal lawsuit and its supporters having the same lack of rights as those behind Prop. 8. But I’ll take my victories where I can get them, thank you.
At the same time as being Queer has become easier in the U.S. and Western Europe, though, it’s become considerably harder in the rest of the world. Legislatures in Russia and Uganda have passed tough new laws not only upping the penalties for same-sex relations but making it a crime even to advocate for Queer rights. In India, an astonishing decision by their Supreme Court ruled that their legislature didn’t have the right to repeal the anti-Queer law their British colonizers stuck them with in the 1890’s. Ironically, countries like India, Uganda and the Navajo Nation here in the U.S. — all places whose indigenous traditions either said nothing about homosexuality either way or, as with the Navajos, actually revered what they called “two-spirit” people — have learned the lessons of repressive 19th century Christianity all too well and regard their anti-Queer laws as defiance of their former colonizers.
When Russian president Vladimir Putin, defending his country’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics, promised that no Queer athletes would be harmed if they came to participate in the Games, I couldn’t help but remember the similar pledge Adolf Hitler made to Jewish athletes to get them to participate in the 1936 Olympics. (That year, both the Winter and Summer Olympics were held in Germany.) As far as I know, Hitler kept that promise … but we all know what he and his Nazi government did to the Jews after that.
Globally, 2013 was also a year of crash and burn. We saw the hopes of the “Arab Spring” two years ago systematically extinguished in Egypt. For all the talk about the revolution and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship showing the triumph of non-hierarchical “leaderless” movements, the old hierarchies quickly resumed control. Mubarak was replaced by one of his fellow generals, who was replaced by Mohammed Morsi of the hierarchical Muslim Brotherhood movement, who was overthrown by … you guessed it, generals again. Now the Egyptian people are suffering worse repression than anything they endured under Mubarak, with political protesters and journalists not only being arrested but given stiff prison sentences.
In Syria, the so-called “moderate” rebels are rapidly losing ground, and the Syrian people are faced with a Hobson’s choice between continued repression under Bashir al-Assad and a rebel army aligned with al-Qaeda that seeks to impose a Taliban-style theocracy. The Taliban themselves are almost certain to be the ultimate winners in the U.S.’s 12-year-old war in Afghanistan; a new national intelligence estimate from the U.S. government admits that almost as soon as the U.S. pulls out, the Taliban will take over again … just as the Communists took over in Viet Nam almost as soon as we withdrew from active combat in 1973 and pulled out our last military personnel two years later.
And yet there’s one bright spot in the Middle East, and it’s come from — of all countries — Iran. Hassan Rouhani somehow navigated the thickets of Iran’s theocratic politics and got himself elected Iran’s new president, and his first priority was to negotiate a peaceful settlement over Iran’s nuclear capability so he can get the sanctions against Iran lifted and start rebuilding the Iranian economy. As long as the rest of the world is willing to acknowledge Iran’s right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium — as long as they only enrich it to the 3 to 5 percent U-235 concentration for a civilian reactor rather than the 80 to 95 percent needed for a bomb — an agreement to end Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a real possibility.
Another bright spot is the replacement of the harshly judgmental Pope Benedict XVI — former head of the Office for the Defense and Propagation of the Faith, once known as the Holy Inquisition — with Francis I. Like Rouhani, Francis is responsible to a group of theologians who are far more conservative than he is, and they wouldn’t have elected him to run the church if he were going to order the church to ordain women as priests, acknowledge women’s rights to control their own bodies or drop the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. But what he’s done so far within the constraints he’s been under has been so amazing he’s been hailed as Man of the Year by such disparate publications as Time and the mainstream Queer magazine The Advocate. From taking his papal name from the patron saint of the poor to greeting a Gay man with the words, “Who am I to judge?,” to challenging the ascendancy of market idolatry and what he calls “unbridled capitalism,” Francis has been a breath of fresh air in a church that badly needed one.
Yet if I were to pick one individual as my Hero of the Year for 2013, it would be Edward Snowden. For the last 12 years the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States government has been keeping a record of virtually every telephone call made in this country, whether or not it involved a foreign resident (it’s the NSA’s charge to spy on foreigners, not Americans). They’ve consistently monitored everyone’s e-mails and Internet traffic, raising government snooping to a Big Brother level of which the agents of the Gestapo, KGB and Stasi could only have dreamed. They’ve eavesdropped on the private communications of world leaders of countries like Germany which presumably were our allies. They’ve probably done a lot more that we still don’t know about, but to the extent we do know these things, it’s due to one man: Edward Snowden.
Snowden has been called a traitor — and worse — for letting the American people know just how much information the government has collected on them and how blatantly they have acted in defiance of the Fourth Amendment, which in case you haven’t memorized the Bill of Rights says, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” To my mind, he’s a hero, a truth-teller who, like Daniel Ellsberg and other legendary whistle-blowers of the past, has sacrificed to show us not only the foul things our government has done in our name but the deep contempt with which they regard us, either as sheep to be led or potentially dangerous bulls to be tamed. I dream of the day when Snowden, like Ellsberg, can return to the U.S. free of legal jeopardy, and walk proudly among the people he has so nobly served with his revelations about America’s utterly unscrupulous and conscience-less secret police.