Showing posts with label OrlandoWeekly. Show all posts
Showing posts with label OrlandoWeekly. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Too scared to win? Barack Obama must fight for his principles, or he’ll give away the keys to the White House

Published in the Portland Phoenix; reprinted in the Orlando Weekly

The video shows a meeting of Barack Obama’s campaign staff. A progressive activist arrives to pitch in, but her eyes glaze over amid Democratic-establishment polling reports and move-to-the-center cliché-spouting. Not quite two minutes go by before she interrupts to explain Obama’s connections to big corporations and neo-conservative foreign-policy advisers. “He’ll promise to rock the boat, but he won’t sink it,” she warns, insisting that the campaign return to the strong, eloquent, principled stands Obama took in the primary.

Her argument wins over those in the room, but before switching strategies, one of the ex-establishment groupies has a question: “Do we still work for Obama?” The progressive’s answer: “No! He works for us. He always did.”

Sure, it’s just the opening skit of the most recent Liberty News TV episode, a progressive news-and-commentary program written and filmed in Portland and distributed on public-access cable channels nationwide. The Illinois senator and his campaign staff need to sit up and take notice anyway, not because it’s a suggestion of a path to victory, but because the clip lays out his only path to victory.

There are a lot of people giving Obama advice about what he should do to beat John McCain. (See “Winning at the Grassroots Level” for a list of books offering similar advice for progressive activists.) But only one of them is offering advice based on an actual analysis of long-term voting and polling data to determine what voters really really want. And what they want is not someone who follows the polls and gets pushed around by the media, but someone who knows what he believes, says so, and stands up for it even in the face of criticism.

In his primary campaign, Obama staked out the progressive, aggressive, principled high ground, and attracted millions of passionate supporters. Having created the movement, and having been selected as its head, he should now follow his people — which almost certainly means doing something more dangerous than any major candidate has ever done: ditching the party establishment.

The people who back Obama may be energetic young progressives, but they are not unlike the vast majority of Americans when it comes to what they look for in a candidate. Glenn Hurowitz, a longtime progressive activist, explains in his book Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party that a major factor determining any voter’s choice is whether the candidate fights well (a characteristic described in polling data as being a “strong leader”).

That trait, Hurowitz argues, trumps most other concerns — even differences of opinion on major policy questions (though not party affiliation). His book, based on a new analysis of 40 years of election and polling data, suggests that the reason the far-right conservative movement has risen to control the American political system is not due to any particular intelligence or ability on the part of right-wing activists, who espouse positions vastly divergent from most Americans’ values. The rise of the right has happened because Democrats and progressives refuse to stand and fight for what they believe in.

His book (for which Portland Phoenix staff writer Deirdre Fulton was a research assistant before she came to work here) debunks the surrender-prone “politics of fear,” saying Democrats cannot win by immersing themselves in polling data and shifting position as public opinion evolves. Rather, they need to show some backbone — by clearly stating Democratic and progressive values, and then standing up for them, over and over, even in the face of political resistance.

Sadly, Obama appears to be turning to the center — for example, with his vote to approve the Bush administration’s warrantless-wiretapping program, which he had previously condemned. That brought waves of criticism from progressive activists, bloggers, and even the New York Times editorial board.

Yes, his vote to give telecom companies immunity for their role in illegal spying on Americans was a major policy failure, and one at odds with most Americans’ expectations of privacy from government snooping. But its repercussions are far worse, in Hurowitz’s analysis, because Obama missed a chance to be seen standing up for what he believes.

With his vote on the wiretapping bill, Obama behaved like most Democrats, who surrender to political pressure, waver as polling data comes in, and wait until the last minute to declare their position on an issue — and take the side that was going to prevail anyway. Not only do they lose important fights on public-policy issues, but they simultaneously destroy their credibility with voters.

Hurowitz’s research shows that when progressives and Democrats take and hold principled stands on issues, they gain respect from voters (even those who disagree with the particular position) and emerge as popular leaders, even if their stand fails. So if Obama had objected, fought, and voted against the bill, people’s opinion of his leadership abilities would have increased, whether or not the bill ultimately became law.

The crux of this argument is really quite simple: Americans are disillusioned with our politicians, and we want something different. We are so disappointed, in fact, that when we find someone who really is different — like Obama seemed to be during the primary — we get excited about him or her, regardless of whether we agree with them on key issues, and regardless of whether they win the fights they engage in. The mere act of fighting is enough, because a politician sticking to his or her guns despite opposition is such a rare surprise in this country.

In an interview, Hurowitz points to the conservative movement as an example. It’s dramatically out of step with the beliefs of almost all Americans, but its activists have convinced millions of people “to support pretty extreme right-wing candidates who don’t share American values,” he says.

“The Republicans realized that their values and their ideas are not what people are voting on, so they can hold those ideas and persuade people in other ways” — specifically, by standing on their principles (wrong-headed and dangerous though they may be) in a world of wafflers and waverers.

By contrast, the Democrats and progressives, whose visions for the country are, in fact, shared by the overwhelming majority of Americans, can’t seem to gather support for their initiatives, mainly because they won’t stand up for them when opposition arises.

“Seeming weak and losing all the time is not providing the strong leadership that voters are looking for,” Hurowitz concludes.

Obama may be getting the message. Hurowitz says he has seen some promising signs from the presumptive Democratic nominee: “In moments of crisis, his political instincts become better, and his principles actually come out, and he starts to actually fight for what he believes in. When he becomes comfortable and feels as if he has a lead in the polls is when he gets sucked into Washington conventional wisdom that for a Democrat you have to tack to the center to win.”

In the primary, for example, when Obama was behind, he became more willing to talk about Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses, “and that was when he surged in the polls,” Hurowitz observes. His attacks were based on fact, and were not snarky or nasty, as Clinton’s often were. “He attacked without seeming like he was on the attack,” which was a very effective weapon.

And Obama may have noticed that he didn’t pick up much support in the polls in the aftermath of his warrantless-wiretapping vote, cast shortly after he secured the Democratic nomination.

The “wisdom” of the party establishment would have expected otherwise, though — a move to the center, in Democratic political theory, attracts voters. But that’s advice from people who couldn’t even prevent George W. Bush from winning a second term.

Obama’s energy comes from the young, not the old, and that highlights what Hurowitz sees as a generation gap threatening the progressive movement. The older Democrats, who form most of the party establishment, grew up in the age of the hippies, and are more inclined to be “tolerant liberals,” he says, concerned about hearing everyone’s point of view and coming to an inclusive consensus resolution.

Turning to a recent example, Hurowitz talks about offshore oil drilling, and cites an environmental lobbyist saying publicly that she could understand the point of view of people who oppose her on the issue. “I could never imagine an oil lobbyist or a Republican . . . saying that they could understand the perspective” of an opponent, Hurowitz says.

But younger progressives — lefties who grew up as part of the “Me Generation,” for example — are less patient. “For younger people who have seen the fruits of losing battles because of the overemphasis on tolerance of other points of view, the important thing for us is actually winning concrete victories,” he says.

The progressive in the Liberty News TV skit wants Obama to propose a nationwide light-rail system. “Where’s the bold plan to get us out of fossil fuels and into alternative energies?” she asks. The others in the room, not yet convinced, roll their eyes, fold their arms, and lean back in their chairs.

“Liberals can be confrontation-averse,” Hurowitz says. But that causes a problem because Republicans and conservatives don’t play by the same tolerant, inclusive, consensus-building rules. “There’s a high price to non-confrontation in politics,” Hurowitz says, noting the wins racked up by the right, and suggesting “Democrats should start acting more like principled conservative activists.”

“We have to cultivate a great love for progressive values (and) at the same time a recognition that putting those values into place requires standing up for what you believe in and fighting hard against those who disagree with you. That is the challenge”

“Forty years worth of political science research shows that being a proud progressive makes political sense for Democrats,” Hurowitz writes very early in his book. “Candidates can take quite unpopular positions without suffering major negative political consequences. So long as they do it with sincerity, integrity, and passion, they’re unlikely to lose many votes because of it,” he writes.

That’s where Obama fell down on the warrantless-wiretapping vote. Hurowitz’s analysis suggests the vote hurt Obama’s image not so much because it put him in the Bush camp for a bit, but because it cast doubt on his forthrightness as a principled leader.

The penalty for errors like that can be severe. Progressives who are disappointed don’t vote Republican, but they do the next-worst thing: they don’t vote at all. (Or, if they do vote, they go for a third-party candidate.)

So how can Obama win? First up, Hurowitz says, is “emphasize partisan affiliation.” The main factor in which candidate a voter supports is party self-identification. Right now “more people identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans, and that is the single biggest thing that’s going to help Obama this year,” he says.

Obama’s “task is to make sure Democrats don’t defect,” which means making sure they’re not disappointed in him or thinking of him as a bad leader. One way to do that is to declare his principles and describe himself in opposition to McCain. Another way is to do what progressives have already begun doing, and portray McCain not as “the independent he seeks to portray himself as but rather a lackey of President Bush and the Republican establishment,” Hurowitz says.

“McCain is just walking into it,” having won the Republican primary because “people admired his generally principled stands,” but now he has “totally jettisoned everything that people liked about him.”

Obama can do it. He can win. But it means standing his ground, not just against the Republican attack machine, but against those in the establishment of his own party who will try to push him to be a moderate, well-tempered centrist candidate, in the image of Al Gore or John Kerry.

Hurowitz’s biggest worry is that “Republicans will come up with an effective attack on Obama and Obama won’t hit back out of fear that striking back will make him unattractive to voters.”

The solution? Obama must remember “every day of his campaign” a famous line from Democratic attack dog James Carville: “It’s hard for your opponent to say bad things about you when your fist is in his mouth.”

Winning at the grassroots level
These books, all published within the past nine months, lay out very specific guidelines for on-the-ground political activists and get-out-the-vote efforts.

FEAR AND COURAGE IN THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY by Glenn Hurowitz | Maisonneuve Press | 274 pages | $14.95

A TIME TO FIGHT: RECLAIMING A FAIR AND JUST AMERICA by Jim Webb | Broadway | 272 pages | $24.95

CAMPAIGN BOOT CAMP: BASIC TRAINING FOR FUTURE LEADERS by Christine Pelosi | Polipoint Press | 243 pages | $15.95



GET OUT THE VOTE, SECOND EDITION: HOW TO INCREASE VOTER TURNOUT by Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber | Brookings Institution Press | 225 pages | $18.95


LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER: STAND UP STRAIGHT by Robert Creamer | Seven Locks Press | 618 pages | $23.95

What should you do?
Glenn Hurowitz offers three pieces of advice for progressives who want to make a difference in November

REGISTER TO VOTE You can do this on Election Day, but voting itself will go faster if you do it in advance, either in person or by mail. You need to prove both your identity and where you live. The ideal document is a driver’s license (or some other government-issued photo ID that has both your photo and your address). Barring that, you’ll need your Social Security card or birth certificate and a utility bill or bank statement with your name and address on it. You can either go to your town office or call there to ask for a voter-registration card to be mailed to your home — you fill out the card and send it in with photocopies of the appropriate documents.

GO VOTE Don’t be so disillusioned that you refuse to participate, or so confident that you think your candidate will win without your support.

BRING A FRIEND Don’t assume everyone is as tuned-in to this election as you are, even though it’s a historic opportunity. Remind people to vote, and make a plan to meet them at the polling place on Election Day.

Jeff Inglis can be reached

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A night in Guantánamo: Staying in a replica cell, with no waterboarding included

Published in the Portland Phoenix (with an excerpt in the Boston Phoenix); reprinted in the Orlando Weekly
First thing in the morning, a man stopped at my door, leaned in, looked me square in the eye, called me “a piece of shit,” and spat on my floor. I tried not to take it personally.
I was in a prison cell and wearing a day-glo-orange inmate’s jumpsuit, sitting on a thin mat, where I had sat and slept intermittently — and uncomfortably — through the preceding seven hours.
Amnesty International brought the cell to Portland’s Monument Square and arranged several days of events about the offshore prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, last week to draw attention to the 270 or so inmates still held there, and to highlight the support of some of Maine’s congressional delegation for suspending the legal rights of inmates there, most of whom have never been charged with any crime.
I’d volunteered to spend the night in the replica cell (which is modeled on the ones at Gitmo, which are very like the standard isolation units used in US “supermax” prisons) because we’ve all heard stories about unlivable conditions at Gitmo but can’t come close to imagining what it must be like to live for as long as seven years in a small box with little contact with the outside world, and even less hope of release. I hoped my few hours of simulated incarceration — even without the alleged abuse visited on Gitmo “detainees” by US service personnel — would help me appreciate the nightmare those prisoners endure.
When I first entered the cell, I sized things up. I could take three normal-size steps from side to side, four from the door to the bed; a “lap” around it involved 12 reasonably normal-sized steps. With my arms outstretched to the sides, I could touch the walls; reaching up, I could touch the ceiling with my stocking feet flat on the floor. Lying on the raised platform that served as my bed, my head touched one wall and my feet pressed against the other. The walls and ceiling were white; the toilet/sink fixture by the door was stainless steel; the floor was gray. There was one small window — easily covered by my forearm — by the bed and another in the door.
I was already in the jumpsuit, so I sat on the thin sleeping mat, got out my iPod, put in the earbuds, selected the “Gitmo” playlist, and turned the volume up. (The guards play a wide selection of American music — though mostly dark heavy stuff like Drowning Pool and Marilyn Manson — at high volume, at all hours, as a form of psychological torture for the prisoners.)
I read from the Koran, opening it at random and finding the 36th sûrah (chapter), entitled “Yâ Sîn,” or “O Man.” According to the annotation in my copy, that chapter is often recited by Muslims at times of adversity, to sustain their faith. At one point in the text, a group of believers approaches a city of non-believers to try to convert them: “(The people of the city) said: we augur ill of you. If ye desist not, we shall surely stone you, and grievous torture will befall you at our hands.” But, Allah explains through the prophet Mohammed, whatever suffering his followers must endure will be relieved if they stick to their faith, while those who did the torturing will be condemned to burn in hell. After a few readings, I found my hope rising and my discomfort decreasing, even though I am not a Muslim.
I also read — for the first of three times that night — a book of poems written by Guantánamo inmates, seeking a sense of what they feel and think. Despite great discomfort, hardship, and fear, some inmates are able to transcend themselves and their situation and find hope, and dreams, and a sort of freedom.

It’s really far worse
My night was only a tiny taste of what the detainees held at Guantánamo experience. The most obvious difference, of course, was that I spent just over seven hours in a replica of a cell sitting in downtown Portland. Many of the inmates have spent more like seven years in real cells in a remote base in Cuba. By comparison, my imprisonment was soft time.

A Portland police officer sat in his patrol car outside, mostly to protect the cell itself and its accompanying gear (a generator, electronic equipment, parts of a disassembled information booth), but I took comfort in his presence, knowing that if any harm befell me, aid would be nearby. The Gitmo detainees have their own uniformed, armed guards, but they are as likely to be their tormentors as their rescuers.
It was mostly dark in my cell, though a few streetlights shined in. Some detainees’ lawyers claim their clients are suffering permanent psychological damage because the lights in their cells have been kept on 24 hours a day for years.
I was warm and not hungry, equipped with a sleeping bag and fortified with a good meal at home before going into the cell; the inmates get blankets if they’re lucky and regularly complain about both the quantity and the quality of food served at Gitmo.
I could control the volume on my iPod (and I confess to skipping a couple songs); the detainees can neither control the volume nor prevent a guard from playing one song over and over for hours on end, as happened on at least one occasion with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” from their 1991 eponymous album.
But the biggest difference, the one that really made it possible for me (a somewhat sane person who functions fairly well in this weird world) to handle my time inside, was this: I knew when I would eventually leave. The men held in Guantánamo don’t. Even those who have been declared not dangerous, not worth holding, whose arrests and incarceration are acknowledged mistakes, are held for months before being finally released. One man, Maher Rafat al-Quwari, has been cleared for release since February 2007, but as a Palestinian with no passport or other national paperwork, he has nowhere to go, so he stays in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement.

Without a futureI thought about what it would take to close the prison. Calls for just that have come from such high Bush administration officials as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and even the president himself, as well as both major-party presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama. And yet it remains open, stalled at best by the practical difficulties of moving terrorism suspects into other prisons, or, at worst, held up by people who may not mean what they say.

Maine’s DC delegation is split on the issue: Republican Senator Susan Collins and Democratic representative Mike Michaud voted for the Military Commissions Act of 2006. [Please see clarification, below.] It recreated a kangaroo-court show-trial system for “trying” detainees in front of military judges (after a nearly identical arrangement created by the Pentagon was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2006), and granted the US government the power to indefinitely imprison anyone — even US citizens — without charging them with a crime, and without ever bringing them before an independent civilian judge. Democratic representative Tom Allen opposed it; Republican senator Olympia Snowe didn’t vote, but later voted to overturn some of its harsher provisions.
And then there was that passerby who spit into my cell. I wondered if his attitude, amplified by the isolation of being stationed at a remote military base, and inflated by being allowed to carry large automatic weapons, might turn him into a rage-filled guard who just might do some of the things prisoners have described.
I wanted to judge him, to accuse him of insensitivity, of sympathizing with those who abuse and torture inmates. But I know as little about that man as we Americans do about the people held at Guantánamo Bay. I don’t know his name, and can tell you only the very basic outline of what he did. Without talking to him, without finding out why he did it, or where inside him that feeling came from, I cannot honestly “convict” him of anything more serious than common rudeness.
He walks free, though, so I’m less worried about him. The men in Guantánamo do not. Whatever they may be suspected of, why they were arrested, has never been made public, nor have the results of any subsequent investigations. Little wonder, then, that they have not been convicted of anything either. Justice has been slow in coming, and for some, may never arrive — at least four of them have committed suicide since the camp opened, and at least 40 of them have attempted it, often repeatedly.
Five others, among the most high-profile ones, appear to be seeking death another way. The morning I left the cell, they went in front of a military judge, in a proceeding that was widely criticized by lawyers and other observers for its departure from common legal standards (such as preventing co-defendants from talking to each other). After they were told what charges were being laid against them for their alleged involvement in the attacks of September 11, 2001, some of them said they wanted to be “martyred,” apparently asking for the death penalty. But like their fellow inmates, they wait.
I did, too. As people walked by throughout the night, some looked in, a few asked me what I was doing; others didn’t seem to notice the cell was even there, much less occupied. It was impossible to know what they thought.
I thought of the young men, some as young as 14, kidnapped from the streets of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, and sold to US troops as alleged terrorists for thousands of dollars in reward money, who now sit, as I did, in small cells awaiting the next dawn. And when I became cold, tired, and cramped, I reminded myself that they are enduring worse and suffering more. Their fortitude was a thin, cold comfort, but it gave me strength.
Visions from inside
Inmates’ smuggled words show pain, frustration
I discovered during my time in the cell that it is possible to look for so long at one spot — on the floor, the wall, the ceiling — that the spot actually disappears from view. With enough uninterrupted time — or enough detachment from the brutality of the “real world” — it must be possible to make everything you can see just disappear.

What appears in its place? We know some answers, courtesy of the men held at Guantánamo. They have, with the help of their lawyers, published fragments of poetry shedding light on their thoughts, dreams, and visions.
Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, published last year by the University of Iowa Press, includes 22 poems that made it past the US military’s censors. The one that struck me most deeply, in the middle of the night as I read the poems aloud to myself, was “O Prison Darkness,” by an author identified only by his first name, Abdulaziz. It ends with these lines.
Even though the bands tighten and seem unbreakable,
They will shatter.
Those who persist will attain their goal;
Those who keep knocking shall gain entry.
O crisis, intensify!
The morning is about to break forth.

These were some of the songs I listened to while in the cell. My selections were based on reporting by Spin, Mother Jones, the BBC, the New York Times, Time, Transcultural Music Review, and FBI documents, all of which listed songs or bands played by soldiers at Guantánamo, usually at very high volumes, as a way to break down detainees’ psychological defenses.

“Soldier Like Me (Return of the Soulja),” 2Pac & Eminem, Loyal to the Game, 2004
“Don’t Get Mad, Get Even,” Aerosmith, Pump, 1989
“Dirrty,” Christina Aguilera featuring Redman, Stripped, 2002
“One Eight Seven,” Dr. Dre, Chronicles — Death Row Classics, 2006
“Step Up,” Drowning Pool, Desensitized, 2004
“Bodies,” Drowning Pool, Sinner, 2001
“If I Had,” Eminem, The Slim Shady LP, 1999
“Take a Look Around,” Limp Bizkit, Greatest Hits, 2005
“This Is the New S**t,” Marilyn Manson, Lest We Forget — The Best of Marilyn Manson, 2004
“The Burn,” Matchbox Twenty, Mad Season, 2000
“For Crying Out Loud,” Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell, 1977
“Whiplash (Live),” Metallica, Kill ‘Em All, 2008
“Meow Mix” radio commercial
“Killing in the Name,” Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine, 1992
“Naked in the Rain,” Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, 2006
“Sometimes,” Britney Spears, . . . Baby One More Time, 1999
“How Mountain Girls Can Love,” Stanley Brothers, 16 Greatest Hits, 2004
“Walking Man,” James Taylor, Greatest Hits, 1974
“The Star Spangled Banner,” United We Stand, Songs for America, 2001

Clarification: The original version of this story did not fully explain the positions Maine Democratic US Representative Mike Michaud took on the Military Commissions Act of 2006. He voted in favor of the bill as it was introduced in the US House of Representatives, but in a subsequent vote changed his mind and opposed it.