Monthly Archives: January 2010

Thank You, Howard Zinn

When I was a 20-year-old college student floating through junior college with no sense of purpose, or no sense of feeling the need to accomplish anything, I ran across Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Like a lot of people my age, I first heard of the book in Good Will Hunting, the 1997 film starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

I wanted to read this history book that would supposedly “blow my f***ing mind.”

I read chapter one, which told the story of Christopher Columbus arriving in Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and how easy he said it would be to enslave the natives because they were so nice and giving.

That wasn’t the history I knew, but it definitely seemed more accurate than the story I was told as a youth of how Columbus discovering America was a good thing for everyone, including the newly enslaved indigenous population.

This initial story did blow my mind, but no more so than the rest of the book.

Professor Zinn’s thesis in the book that the battles going on in the United States are always the repetition of the constant struggle between the haves and have nots makes a lot more sense than the mythology of the American melting pot.

Its stories about poor blacks being pitted against poor striking white workers, which led to the racist acts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries made much more sense than the idea that racism sprung out of nowhere.

The fact that slaves did rebel and rebelled often completely contradicts the idea of the docile cotton picker on Southern plantations that we learned in grade school.

After reading A People’s History, it became obvious that there was never a Golden Age in America. In parts of the country? Yes. For a few? Yes. But not for all.

Not for most, actually. But we never learned this in our history.

The stories about those suffering from the oppression of the wealthy are never told. This is what made A People’s History such a treasure. Professor Zinn told these stories of oppression and then of protest. He told the stories of the people, not of the victors.

Mainstream historians and conservative commentators have criticized him as a “polemist,” or a controversialist.

Professor Zinn did speak against the mainstream, and he did often argue against the oppression of others. He advised students who participated in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which attempted to desegregate the South by participating in sit-ins and marches.

He was also a powerful voice in the anti-war movements of the 60s and 70s and 80s and 90s and 2000s.

Professor Zinn always said that during times of war, those who suffer the most weren’t the instigators, rather they are the poor soldiers fighting and the people of the countries in which the fighting is taking place.

That fact is evident today as those who suffer the most in Afghanistan and Iraq are the hundreds of people at a time who get blown up and killed or maimed up by car bombs in marketplaces and mosques. And the wealthy Osama Bin Laden isn’t fighting. The poor, uneducated, disaffected Muslim youth is the one blowing himself up.

But Professor Zinn is more than a “polemist.” He taught that history is a subjective subject. He taught that writers left out parts they deemed unimportant to the story. The “unimportant parts of the story” usually happened to include those on the losing sides of these battles: the indigenous, the blacks, and the poor.

And when history is seen through this point of view, it makes much more sense.

If it wasn’t for my chance encounter with A People’s History of the United States, I never would have studied journalism and political science once I got my act together in junior college.

I became a reporter to tell the story of the have nots, but there just didn’t seem to be enough time or space in the newspaper for these.

And that’s why now, as a teacher, I always try to be completely honest with my students by painting as complete a picture of something as I possibly can.

It’s this point of view of a constant struggle that continues to shape the world around me. From the healthcare debates in Congress to the banking industry’s games to the unfairness of American education, these are all still battles between the powerful and the poor.

It’s also through this point of view that I learned to fully love my country. It is full of faults, but the people who live here will always fight for their rights despite the consequences.

A woman from Michigan called in to NPR today and said that Howard Zinn was “a warrior” and that we must all pick up the slack now that he’s gone.

Thanks to Professor Zinn, I think I’m as ready as possible.

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SOTU: Likes, Sort-of Likes, Dislikes

It’s hard to take a 70-minute speech and break down every claim. In fact, Republicans didn’t even worry about refuting any claim in President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union speech tonight, instead they just repeated talking points in their rebuttal. But whether or not you like what President Obama had to say, one thing can’t be debated: he knows how to deliver a speech and he did great tonight.

Likes

  • Finally, blame is placed on the previous administration. Earlier this week, James Carville wrote that the Democrats don’t know how to play the “blame game.” But tonight, in almost unarguable fashion, the president pointed out that the economic crisis, especially the budget deficit, falls almost entirely on the Bush Administration:

So let me start the discussion of government spending by setting the record straight. At the beginning of the last decade, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. That was before I walked in the door.

Finally. Finally. FINALLY! The leader of the party placed blame where it belongs. Just like the Great Depression wasn’t FDR’s fault, this current crisis isn’t Obama’s fault. It’s time for this to be the Democrats mantra: “We need to cut spending and raise taxes on the wealthy because the previous president wasted the country’s money on two wars (one unjustified war) and two tax cuts primarily for the wealthy.”

And later, he was able to place the blame of the banking collapse, which happened months before the November election, on the deregulatory drug that the Bush Administration and even Clinton Administration 10 years earlier were smoking:

From some on the right, I expect we’ll hear a different argument — that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts for wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, and maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is, that’s what we did for eight years. That’s what helped lead us into this crisis. It’s what helped lead to these deficits. And we cannot do it again. Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it’s time to try something new.

  • Republicans are finally called out on their obstructionist agenda: “And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let’s show the American people that we can do it together.”
  • He told Democrats to grow a pair: “To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills.”

One of the biggest problems in Obama’s first term has been the need to please Republicans. Democrats have not been able to push through a single major reform of Obama’s agenda because they lacked the political willpower to do so. Let the Republicans filibuster. Let them keep voting “no.” But don’t hide. The Democrats have one of the largest majorities in both houses, but don’t know how to lead. They are like an offensive lineman that caught a tipped pass and doesn’t know what to do with it, so they just fall down, or run the wrong way on the field. 59-41 is still an commanding lead in the Senate, so damn Scott Brown’s election. It is just one vote and this country has been able to function and major legislation has been able to pass without one party having a supermajority.

  • Accepting fault for his failures. One of the biggest frustrations I had with the Bush Administration was its inability to admit to mistakes. It screwed up over and over again, whether it was it lying about Iraq, or it’s decision to send too few troops into Afghanistan, or it’s decision not to repeal tax cuts that were making this country broke. At least twice tonight, Obama admitted that he had screwed up:

On health care:

Still, this is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became.  I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people.  And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, the process left most Americans wondering, “What’s in it for me?”

And during his grand finale:

Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved.

I’d like someone find Bush admit fault. Admitting failure is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.

Sort-of Likes

  • On energy. One of the most surprising facts about the Republican Party is its love for nuclear energy. The party that claims to be against big government and welfare supports the energy source that needs the most government backing. And Obama through them a bone on this issue. He said let’s build nuclear power plants and clean-coal plants and drill for natural gas off of our coasts because, well, he has to say that. And the energy issue is one that crosses party lines. What will Democrats in Pennsylvania say when Obama says, “Sorry, guys, were not supporting coal anymore.” That is political suicide. Hopefully a comprehensive energy bill, something that needs to be passed by Congress, can make it through. But the real goal, as was obvious in the scattered, half-hearted applause from the Republican side, is to “invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.” It’s important to remember that not ONE source of energy development in this country’s history hasn’t been subsidized in one way or another.
  • The president will NOT give up on healthcare reform. With 59 votes, the Democrats are running away from any chance at enacting real healthcare reform. Why? The overwhelming content of the two bills supports the following: 1. the ending of preexisting-condition discrimination, and 2. the creation of an exchange that allows non-insured citizens to buy into a group plan. Those two reforms alone are enough to make this healthcare reform act effective. This is what he said: “I didn’t choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt.  And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics.”
  • Asking for the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is great, but he should have spent more time on the issue. The military has ALWAYS been the great melting pot of American society. It was the first place where blacks were equal to white, where Indians became Americans, and where the bravest soldiers, or those awarded the highest percentage of medals, has been Hispanics and Latinos. Homosexuality is a similar issue. But he should have spent more than just a passing phrase on this issue.

Dislikes

  • A spending freeze is too much to give to Republicans. If he wanted to really meet them in the middle without giving up too much, he should have asked for the line-item veto and then pledged to cut all pork-barrel spending and then create a bipartisan commission on deficit reduction. I think that would have been enough.
  • This is to Samuel Alito: You are a Supreme Court justice, one of the nine most respected people in this country, show some non-partisan backbone. Moron. So he criticized your decision. Who f’n cares? It won’t be the last one either.
  • The post-SOTU “analysis” by the major networks is a joke. Again, to the media: the former Bush appointee will say Obama’s plans won’t work. The former Clinton appointee will say Obama’s plans are great. Duh. What about analysis? ABC News actually had an economist on the air to discuss the small business plan. That segment was great. He was honest about what he liked about the plan, and how it would help businesses. I expected him to say $30 billion was too little. But he just analyzed what the president said. Then I turned it to CNN and the “analysts” were arguing whether it was OK to criticize a Supreme Court decision. Silly stuff, really.

My overall take

Obama is such a great speaker and he delivered. His speech reached across party lines and he really made multiple efforts to hook Republicans into participating (nuclear energy, spending freeze, tax cuts). But he energized Democrats. I’m energized and I know other Democrats will be too. He gave the party some backbone and that’s what was really needed. He reminded the party that they are the ones with major majorities in both houses of Congress. Act like it.

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Spin Control: Democrats Jumping Ship?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been bombarded with the thought that the Democratic Party was a sinking ship because of all the retirements taking place – Sens. Christopher Dodd and Byron Dorgan the most prominent among these.

Then I ran across this interesting piece by well-respected media critic Eric Alterman in The Nation titled “What Would Molly Say?” (WWMS) about what the deceased liberal commentator Molly Ivins would say about recent coverage of major political events:

I found myself wondering WWMS on the day Chris Dodd withdrew from the 2010 Senate race in Connecticut. The withdrawal, unlike Byron Dorgan’s in North Dakota a day earlier, vastly improved Democrats’ chances of retaining that seat, and brought to, um, four the number of incumbent Democrats who are planning not to run. (That’s compared with six Republicans.) In the House, ten Democrats are planning to retire (compared with fourteen Republicans). Among the nation’s governors, it is three Democrats (and four Republicans). Add it all up, and what do you get? According to that unerring guardian of Beltway bloviation–ABC News’s The Note–“Democrats Are Dropping Like Flies.” A contradiction, you say? Turns out that it, too, is the Democrats’ fault: “You know things are bad for Democrats when a move that actually improved their chances in this fall’s elections…was universally interpreted as yet another sign of the party’s bleak prospects,” explains Wall Street Journal ace columnist Gerald Seib. (Remember, he said “universally.”)

This take about retirements gives a different spin on who’s jumping ship. Yes, not everything is going perfectly for the Democrats, but things aren’t as bad as the MSM (Mainstream Media) claims. With the MSM falsely lumping these retirements with the stabilized, but not growing economy, and the Dems inability to pass healthcare reform, power is being stripped from the party in charge, and a false narrative about the state of the nation is told.

And the question not being asked is, “If these 14 Democrats are jumping ship, what are the 20 Republicans fleeing from?”

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RepublicLiar of the Day: Newt Gingrich

Yesterday on NPR, the former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 60-year-old law that put caps on corporate and union spending on campaigns was a victory “for the middle class.”

What?

In what world does a ruling that will allow corporate donations to dwarf the donations of regular Americans become a “victory of the middle class”?

Fact is, yesterday’s ruling gives Gingrich hope that he can make a run for The White House as a fully-owned subsidiary of oil companies and banks:

I do think this ruling makes it easier for, you know, pro-free enterprise conservatives who are critical of government to acquire the resources to take on very, very wealthy liberals who want to buy seats.

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Why Obama’s First Year and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace are Alike

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about President Obama’s first year in office. I don’t exactly believe that it was successful, but I definitely don’t believe it was a failure. So what exactly was it? It was Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

Before you fly off the handle and start screaming, “That movie sucked!” hear me out. Yes, The Phantom Menace suffered from many weaknesses: poor direction, bad script, annoying characters, and too much reliance on special effects. However, the movie did have some great qualities, including a truly bad ass villain and Padme Amidala, the hottest royalty in the galaxy. And The Phantom Menace did move the Star Wars story forward filling in much-needed details like who Vader’s father was (no one) and how Obi-Wan Kenobi became Anakin’s teacher.

So too was Obama’s first year in office filled with a bad-ass villain (the health insurance industry), and the filling in of much needed details (Afghanistan, torture and finance reform). But like The Phantom Menace, Obama’s first year was also filled with a poor script (what was his overriding message?), poor direction (Mr. Emanuel, everyone can’t be pleased by every piece of legislation in D.C.), and some truly annoying characters (Joe Lieberman even LOOKS like Jar Jar Binks!).

In The Phantom Menace, Lucas put too much emphasis on Tatooine and podracing. In year one, Obama put too much emphasis on health care reform.

In The Phantom Menace, too much of the script relied on the poor acting of Jake Lloyd (Young Anakin) and the awful accent of Viceroy Gunray. Just like in year one, Obama placed too much of the decision-making power in the hands of morons like House Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

In The Phantom Menace, Lucas placed too much emphasis on pleasing children. And in year one, Obama placed too much emphasis on pleasing everybody.

Of course there are those who hated Star Wars to begin with and, predictably, hated The Phantom Menace. This is just like the Republicans and Tea Baggers (my preferred term for those right-wing nut jobs) who would have hated Obama even if he ended all social programs, made public schooling illegal, and allowed Wall Street to do whatever it wanted.

Then there are those Star Wars fans who wish the series had ended after Empire Strikes Back because Return of the Jedi had those damn Ewoks. These guys are like those left-wing nut jobs who thought that Obama should have walked into his office on day one and ordered Congress to pass single-payer health care, instantly pull all the troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, release all the prisoners at Guantanamo, and execute those Wall Street executives who lost their stockholders’ money on gambles. They, of course, weren’t going to be pleased by anything Obama did in his first year either.

Then there are those like me, who thought ROTJ was a good additional to the original trilogy and couldn’t wait to see Episode I. And when we did see The Phantom Menace, we were thrilled for the most part, although we cringed our way through some scenes and were thoroughly annoyed by Jar Jar Lieberman, I mean, Jar Jar Binks. We look at Obama’s first year as a mixed bag. Not great, not even good. Just fair.

So that’s what I think of Obama’s first year in office. I just hope year two isn’t a sappy love story like Attack of the Clones, but I’ll tell you what, Obama’s first year was much better than the Battlefield Earth that was George W.’s first year in office.

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