Letter To The Millennials

A Boomer Professor talks to his students

Written by

  • Director, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. Producer, “Mean Streets”, “The Last Waltz”, “Until the End Of the World”, “To Die For”

So we are about to embark on a sixteen-week exploration of innovation, entertainment, and the arts. This course is going to be about all three, but I’m going to start with the “art” part — because without the art, no amount of technological innovation or entertainment marketing savvy is going to get you to go to the movie theater. However, I think there’s also a deeper, more controversial claim to be made along these same lines: Without the art, none of the innovation matters — and indeed, it may be impossible — because the art is what gives us vision, and what grounds us to the human element in all of this. Although there will be lectures, during which I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned about the way innovation, entertainment, and the arts fit together, the most crucial part of the class is the dialogue between us, and specifically the insights coming from you as you teach me about your culture and your ideals. The bottom line is that the world has come a long way, but from my perspective, we’re also living in uniquely worrisome times; my generation had dreams of how to make a better life that have remained woefully unfulfilled (leaving many of us cynical and disillusioned), but at the same time your generation has been saddled with the wreckage of our attempts and are now facing what may seem to be insurmountable odds. I’m writing this letter in the hopes that it will help set the stage for a truly cross-generational dialogue over the next sixteen weeks, in which I help you understand the contexts and choices that have brought us where we are today, and in which you help me, and one another, figure out the best way to move forward from here.

When I was your age, I had my heart broken and my idealism challenged multiple times by the assassinations of my political heroes: namely, John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Many in my generation turned away from politics and found our solace in works of art and entertainment. So one of the things I want to teach you about is a time from 1965–1980 when the artists really ruled both the music and the film industries. Some said “the lunatics had taken over the asylum” (and, amusingly enough, David Geffen named his record company Asylum), but if you look at the quality of work that was produced, it was extraordinary; in fact, most of it is still watched and listened to today. Moreover, in that period the most artistic work also sold the best: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper was without doubt the best record of the year but also the best selling, and The Godfather was similarly both best movie of the year and the biggest box office hit. That’s not happening right now, and I want to try to understand why that is. I want to explore, with you, what the implications of this shift might be, and whether this represents a problem. It may be that those fifteen years your parents and I were lucky enough to experience was one of those renaissance moments that only come along once every century, so perhaps it’s asking too much to expect that I’ll see it occur again in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I do hope it happens at least once in yours.

I spoke of the heartbreak of political murder that has permanently marked me and my peers, but we have also been profoundly disappointed by politics’ failure to improve the lives of the average citizen. In 1969, the median salary for a male worker was $35,567 (in 2012 dollars). Today, it is $33,904. So for 44 years, while wages for the top 10% have continued to climb, most Americans have been caught in a “Great Stagnation,” bringing into question the whole purpose of the American capitalist economy (and, along the way, shattering our faith in the “American Dream”). The Reagan-era notion that what benefited the 1% — “the establishment” — would benefit everyone has by now been thoroughly discredited, yet it seems that we are still struggling to pick up the pieces after this failed experiment.

Seen through this lens, the savage partisanship of the current moment makes an odd kind of sense. What were the establishment priorities that moved inexorably forward in both Republican and Democratic administrations? The first was a robust and aggressive foreign policy. As Stephen Kinzer wrote about those in power during the 1950s, “Exceptionalism — the view that the United States has a right to impose its will because it knows more, sees farther, and lives on a higher moral plane than other nations — was to them not a platitude, but the organizing principle of daily life and global politics.”

From Eisenhower to Obama, this principle has been the guiding light of our foreign policy, bringing with it annual defense expenditures that dwarf those of all the world’s major powers combined. The second principle of the establishment was that “what is good for Wall Street is good for America.” Despite Democrats’ efforts to paint the GOP as the party of Wall Street, one would only have to look at the track record of Clinton’s treasury secretaries Rubin and Summers (specifically, their zealous efforts to kill the Glass-Steagal Act and deregulate the big banks and the commodities markets) to see that both major parties are guilty of sucking up to money; apparently, the establishment rules no matter who is in power. Was it any surprise, then, that Obama appointed the architects of bank deregulation, Summers and Geithner, to clean up the mess their policies had caused? Was it any surprise that they failed? Was it any surprise that establishment ideas about the surveillance state were not challenged by Obama? The good news is that, as a nation, we have grown tired of being the world’s unpaid cop, and we are tired of dancing to Wall Street’s tune. Slowly, we are learning that these policies may benefit the 1%, but they don’t benefit the people as a whole. My guess is the 2016 election may be fought on this ground, and we may finally begin to see real change, but the fact remains that we — both your generation and mine — are right now deeply mired in the fallout of unfulfilled promises and the failures of the political system.

So this is the source of boomer disillusionment. But even if we are cynical about political change, we can try to imagine together a future where great artistic work continues to flourish; this, then, is the Innovation and Entertainment part of the course. It’s not that I want you to give up on politics — in fact the events of the last few weeks in Ferguson only reinforce my belief that when people disdain politics, their anger gets channeled into violence. But what I do want you to think about is that art and culture are more plastic — they can be molded and changed easier than politics. There is a sense in which art, politics, and economics are all inextricably and symbiotically tied together, but history has proven to us that art serves as a powerful corrective against the dangers of the establishment. There is a system of checks and balances in which, even though the arts may rely on the social structures afforded by strong economic and political systems, artists can also inspire a culture to move forward, to reject the evils of greed and prejudice, and to reconnect to its human roots. If we are seeking a political and economic change, then, an authentic embrace of the arts may be key. Part of your role as communication scholars is to look more closely at the communication surrounding us and think critically about the effects its having, whose agenda is being promoted, and whether that’s the agenda that will serve us best. One of the tasks we’ll wrestle with in this class will be how we can get the digital fire hose of social media to really support artists, not just brands.

In 2011, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) gave a lecture at the British Film Institute. He said something both simple and profound:

People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos and the Internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.

It’s also equally ludicrous to believe that — at the very least — this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colorful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking, “What can we do to get people to buy more of these?

And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this. Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.

I think Charlie is right. People are starving, so we give them bread and circuses.

​ But I think Charlie is wrong when he says “there is no winning”. In fact I think we are really in a “winner-take-all” society. Look at the digital pop charts. 80% of the music streams are for 1% of the content. That means that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are billionaires, but the average musician can barely make a living. Bob Dylan’s first album only sold 4,000 copies. In this day and age, he would have been dropped by his label before he created his greatest work.

A writer I greatly admired, Gabriel García Márquez, died recently. For me, Márquez embodied the role of the artist in society, marked by the refusal to believe that we are incapable of creating a more just world. Utopias are out of favor now. Yet Marquez never gave up believing in the transformational power of words to conjure magic and seize the imagination. The other crucial aspect of Márquez’s work is that he teaches us the importance of regionalism. In a commercial culture of sameness where you can stroll through a mall in Shanghai and forget that you’re not in Los Angeles, Marquez’s work was distinctly Latin American. His work was as unique as the songs of Gilberto Gil, or the cinema of Alejandro González Iñárritu. In a cultural like ours that has so long advocated a “melting pot” philosophy that papers over our differences, it is valuable to recognize that there is a difference between allowing our differences to serve as barriers and appreciating the things that make each culture unique, situated in time and space and connected to its people. What’s more, young artists also need to have the sense of history that Marquez celebrated when he said, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” Cultural amnesia only leads to cultural death.

With these values in mind, my hope is to lead you in a discussion of politics and culture in the context of 250 years of America’s somewhat utopian battle to build “a city on a hill.” I think many in my generation had this utopian impulse (which is, it should be observed, different than idealism), but it is slipping away like a short-term memory. I did not aspire to be that professor who quotes Dr. King, but I feel I must. He said the night before he was assassinated, “I may not get there with you, but I believe in the promised land.” My generation knew that the road towards a better society would be long, but we hoped our children’s children might live in that land, even if we weren’t able to get there with you. It may take even longer than we imagined, but I know your generation believes in justice and equality, and that fills me with hope that the dream of some sort of promised land is not wholly lost. The next step, then, is to figure out how to work together, to learn from the past while living in the present moment in order to secure a better future, and I believe this class offers us an incredible opportunity to do precisely that.

So what are the skills that we can develop together in order to open a real cross-generational dialogue? First, I would hope we would learn to improvise. I want you to challenge me, just as I encourage and challenge you. Improvisation means sometimes throwing away your notes and just responding from your gut to the ideas being presented. It takes both courage and intelligence, but I’m pretty sure you have deep stores of both qualities, which will help you show leadership both in class and throughout the rest of your life. Leadership is more than just bravery and intellect, however; it also requires vulnerability and compassion, skills that I hope we can similarly cultivate together. I want you to know that I don’t have all the answers — and, more importantly, I know that I don’t have all the answers. I am somewhat confused by our current culture and I am looking to you for insight. You need to have that same vulnerability with your peers, and you also need to treat them with compassion as you struggle together to understand this new world of disruption. I know these four elements — courage, intelligence, vulnerability, and compassion — may seem like they are working at cross-purposes, but we will need all four qualities if we are to take on the two tasks before us. One of our tasks is to try to restore a sense of excellence in our culture — the belief that great art and entertainment can also be popular. The second task is for baby boomer parents and their millennial children to form a natural political alliance going forward. As I’ve said, I don’t think the notion that we will get to “the promised land” is totally dead, and with your energy and the tools of the new media ecosystem to help us organize, we can keep working towards a newly hopeful society, culture, and economy, in spite of the mess we have left you with.

This is, at least, the plan. Of course, as the great critic James Agee once said, “Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests, is another matter.”

 

 

View profile at Medium.com

Why Burning Man is not an example of a loosely regulated tech utopia

The rules are important at Burning Man. But being rich means you get to do what you want, just like anywhere else

Why Burning Man is not an example of a loosely regulated tech utopia
El Pulpo Mecanico, at the Burning Man 2012 “Fertility 2.0″ arts and music festival, August 29, 2012. (Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

“Burning Man culture,” writes Gregory Ferenstein in Vox, “discourages money or bartering; the entire economy is a gift economy.”

Ferenstein, a regular attendee at the Nevada desert counterculture festival so beloved by Northern California’s tech-hipsters, is defending Burning Man from critics like the New York Times’ Nick Bilton, who have noted that in recent years, rich attendees have been setting up their own luxury camps within the confines of Black Rock City. Ferenstein makes some good points explaining why tech billionaires love Burning Man, but it’s still difficult to square his point on “burning man culture” with the details reported by Bilton.

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs… “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.

Such camps, reports Bilton, also included “Sherpas” that serve as servants.

Ferenstein writes that the tech execs have basically the same experience as everyone else. But he appears to be tone-deaf to the enormous offense of labeling paid employees “Sherpas” and doesn’t bother to mention the female models flown in from New York. That’s not the gift economy, and it’s not the sharing economy. And it’s surely not something that anyone even imagined possible when tripping around a very big bonfire on Baker Beach in the early ’90s.



Ferenstein also wanders into a self-combusting contradiction, of the sort that would look pretty good exploding  in the desert night. Burning Man, he writes, “is an experiment in what a city would look like if it were architected for wild creativity and innovation…. At Burning Man, sharing is the economy. It’s rather appealing to the Silicon Valley elite to see an entire city function on an economic idea that is at the heart of the knowledge economy. It’s an important glimpse of why the founders are so optimistic that a loosely regulated field of tech startups can outweigh the potential downsides of unregulated sharing.”

But Burning Man is intensely regulated. It’s got its own police force. Gun control is absolute. Attendance is limited to a set number of people who can afford the not-cheap tickets. The very layout of Black Rock City is a paean to planning and organization. Central control is as much the essence of Burning Man as is hedonism and fire.

We can argue about the proper extent of regulation. Is Burning Man more like Houston, which scoffs at zoning restrictions, or San Francisco, where plastic bags are outlawed? (The rules on trash at Burning Man might come off as pretty extreme to your typical happy-go-lucky free market polluter, after all.) But to use Burning Man as a model for what tech billionaires want for a greater society is to actually argue that rules are extremely important, and anarchy is a failure!

The key point made by Nick Bilton is that the very existence of a camp inside Burning Man where tickets cost $25,000 and female companionship is imported is a demonstration that Burning Man, far from being an alternative to society, is business as usual.

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/22/why_burning_man_is_not_an_example_of_a_loosely_regulated_tech_utopia/?source=newsletter

Are We Out of Big Ideas?

http://geniussquared.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Plato-Socrates-Aristotle.png

“The Gods have died!”, the villagers cried.

“What should we do? Mourn? Grieve? Plead?”, the Chief asked the Priest, desperate.

“No”, said the Priest, looking at the sky, afraid.

**

Here’s a tiny question. Are we idearupt? As in: bankrupt of great ideas?

Go ahead. Name me an “ism” that still works.

I’ll wait.

Conservatism? #LOL. Liberalism? #lol. Capitalism, or what’s left of it? Sure, maybe for billionaires. “Libertarianism”? I invite you to Mogadishu, good sir. Socialism…syndicalism…anarchism…mercantilism…revanchism…shit!!

Wait. What about…Bronyism?

Perhaps you see my point.

We’re living through a kind of implosion. Not just of institutions—that much is obvious. But a collapse of institutions that was detonated by an implosion.

Of ideas.

Yesterday’s ideas about how to organize societies and economies simply don’t work anymore.

And so we’re left in a vacuum. What’s a vacuum? A void. An emptiness. An absence. We’re out of good ideas about how societies, democracies, and economies should be organized and managed.

But not just “how”. More deeply, by whom—and why.

What’s the point, you often wonder. Of your life. Of the sheer goddamned futility of it all.

Working harder on stuff that doesn’t matter to buy junk you can’t afford to impress people you don’t like obeying the orders of robots programmed by assholes who’ve never read a book in their lives that oversee the entire economy purely for the production of “profit” not real things that actually benefit human lives which are getting poorer so they’re just one paycheck away from disaster…and even if you do somehow win the infernal contest of all the above, what’s the jackpot at the end of the rainbow? A life that’s totally meaningless in the first place.

What the fuck?

If you think all that’s…futile…you’re not wrong. You’re precisely right. It is. Yesterday’s great “isms” do not offer enough, to enough, for enough, from enough.

Whether it is “liberalism” or “conservatism”, the result is the same.

The middle class implodes; the rich grow incalculably richer; the poor are trampled. What’s the result? To pay for social services, the assets of the state are “privatized“; but they cannot do so for long. Eventually, ninety percent plus of people see their incomes stagnate; their wealth vanish; economies stall as people grow poorer. Society can no longer afford public goods, as tax bases dry up; public and private debts grow; and currencies are devalued. People’s lives go from prosperous and stable to precarious and impoverished in a generation or two.

See the pattern? The collapse of great ideas about to organize stuff isn’t merely…an idea. It’s reality.

Consider the twentieth century. The world created international law, international development, international trade, and international human rights. These were tremendous, astonishing human accomplishments. The kind that mankind might never have even dreamed of a few short centuries ago.

And now? What do we consider “great ideas”? Cruising to your less-than-minimum-wage temp gig at a robo-warehouse in your self-driving car share checking how many “friends” Spot made on the latest doggy dating app hoping you got another heart on yours?

Those aren’t great ideas. They’re clever businesses, and for that we should applaud them. But we must recognize. You can’t Tinder your way to a better world. You can’t even Tinder your way to a life worth living.

All the great “isms” are winking out. And so. The world is starting to burn. Nations are fracturing. Social contracts are being torn apart. In most of the world’s richest nations, not one but two generations will be lost. The global economy is stagnating.

And already from that witches cauldron is rising the smoke. Of violence, animosity, extremism, hatred. Which will eventually, if the fire is left untended, kindle into a wildfire of war.

All this is not inevitable. Yet. But it is predictable. For a single, simple reason.

We no longer have ideas powerful enough to organize the world. Yesterday’s “isms” are vanishing. And in their place is left a vacuum.

Here’s the catch.

You.

You probably believe that something always fills a vacuum. For you’ve been trained to be an obedient believer in progress; in advancement; in growth; in efficiency; in spontaneous order; in self-organization; in automaticity; in manifest destiny; and in all that’s inevitability.

In other words, you’re a True Believer in…the Big Idea: the idea of the progress of ideas.

Something always fills a vacuum, right? A bigger, better idea?

Wrong.

Sometimes, nothing does. For a very long while.

Sometimes, there is no progress of ideas.

Sometimes the darkness stays. And lasts. And deepens. Into an endless, frozen midnight. An abyss of collapsing ideas; from which mankind must escape.

We call those times Dark Ages. And my worry is that we’re stumbling headlong into one.

**

“The Gods have died!”, the villagers cried.

“What should we do? Mourn? Grieve? Plead?”, the Chief asked the Priest, desperate.

“No”, said the Priest, looking at the sky, afraid. “We must pray!”, he shouted, angrily.

“Pray?”, the villagers muttered to themselves, confused. “To whom?”

“To the Gods”, the Priest whispered.

“But the Gods are dead”, the Chief protested.

“Who do you think killed them?”, the Priest demanded.

“Gods who were more powerful still. And it is to them we must pray”.

“New Gods! But who are they?”, the villagers asked one another, astonished, anxious, afraid.

“They will reveal themselves. But only if our prayers prove worthy. Come. Let us pray!”, the Priest commanded.

“We are saved!”, cried the villagers.

“Glory!”, cried the Chief.

The Priest smiled.

He raised his hands to the heavens; and they all bowed beneath the perfect sky the new Gods hid behind.

The sun rose high. There was not a cloud to be seen.

It was how every Dark Age begins.

View story at Medium.com

BLOGGER COMMENT:  The “big ideas” of today are silly multimillion dollar phone apps and dumping ice cubes on your head in front of the new Audi.

I recall having many conversations like this in the Sixties. I’m happy there are those beginning to question the status quo in the 21st century.  Perhaps one might begin by looking back to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates…

The Carnage of Capitalism



Capitalism is expanding like a tumor in the body of American society, spreading further into vital areas of human need like health and education.

Photo Credit: JoeBakal/Shutterstock.com

Capitalism is expanding like a tumor in the body of American society, spreading further into vital areas of human need like health and education.

Milton Friedman said in 1980: “The free market system distributes the fruits of economic progress among all people.” The father of the modern neoliberal movementcouldn’t have been more wrong. Inequality has been growing for 35 years, worsening since the 2008 recession, as a few well-positioned Americans have made millions while the rest of us have gained almost nothing. Now, our college students and medicine-dependent seniors have become the source of new riches for the profitseeking free-marketers.

Higher Education: Administrators Get Most of the Money

College grads took a 19 percent pay cut in the two years after the recession. By 2013 over half of employed black recent college graduates were working in occupations that typically do not require a four-year college degree. For those still in school, tuition has risen much faster than any other living expense, and the average student loan balance has risen 91 percent over the past ten years.

At the other extreme is the winner-take-all free-market version of education, with a steady flow of compensation towards the top. Remarkably, and not coincidentally, as inequality has surged since the 1980s, the number of administrators at private universities has doubled. Administrators now outnumber faculty on every campusacross the country.

These administrators are taking the big money. As detailed by Lawrence Wittner, the 25 highest-paid presidents increased their salaries by a third between 2009 and 2012, to nearly a million dollars each. For every million-dollar public university president in 2011, there were fourteen such presidents at private universities, and dozens of lower-level administrators aspiring to be paid like their bosses. At Purdue, for example, the 2012 administrative ranks included a $313,000-a-year acting provost, a $198,000 chief diversity officer, a $253,000 marketing officer and a $433,000 business school chief.

All this money at the top has to come from somewhere, and that means from faculty and students. Adjunct and student teachers, who made up about 22 percent of instructional staff in 1969, now make up an estimated 76 percent of instructional staff in higher education, with a median wage in 2010 of about $2,700 per course. More administrative money comes from tuition, which has increased by over 1,000 percent since 1978.

At the for-profit colleges, according to a Senate report on 2009 expenses, education companies spent about 23 percent of all revenue on marketing and advertising, and almost 20 percent of revenue on pre-tax profits for their shareholders. They spent just 17.2 percent of their revenue on instruction.

Medicine: A 10,000 Percent Profit for Corporations

As with education, the extremes forced upon us by free-market health care are nearly beyond belief. First, at the human end, 43 percent of sick Americans skipped doctor’s visits and/or medication purchases in 2011 because of excessive costs. It’s estimatedthat over 40,000 Americans die every year because they can’t afford health insurance.

At the corporate end, drugmakers are at times getting up to $100 for every $1 spent. That’s true at Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer of the drug Sovaldi, which charges about $10 a pill to its customers in Egypt, then comes home to charge $1,000 a pill to its American customers. The 10,000 percent profit is also true with the increasingly lucrative, government-funded Human Genome Project, which is estimated to potentially return about $140 for every $1 spent. Big business is quickly making its move. Celera GenomicsAbbott LabsMerckRocheBristol-Myers Squibb, andPfizer are all starting to cash in.

The extremes of capitalist greed are evident in the corporate lobbying of Congress to keep Medicare from negotiating better drug prices for the American consumer. Americans are cheated further when corporations pay off generic drug manufacturers to delay entry of their products into the market, thereby ensuring inflated profits for the big firms for the durations of their shady deals.

Global Greed

Lives are being ravaged by unregulated, free-market capitalism, in the U.S. and around the world. According to the Global Forum for Health Research, less than 10 percent of the global health research budget is spent on the conditions responsible for 90 percent of human disease.

And the greed is getting worse. Perhaps it’s our irrational fear of socialism, peaking in the years after World War 2, that has inspired our winner-take-all culture. In the Reagan era we listened to Margaret Thatcher proclaim that “There is no such thing as society.”

In a more socially-conscious time, in 1955, after Dr. Jonas Salk had developed the polio vaccine, he was asked by reporter Edward R. Murrow: “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” Responded Salk, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

A free-market capitalist might remind us that a skillful hedge fund manager can make as much as a thousand Jonas Salks.

 

Paul Buchheit teaches economic inequality at DePaul University. He is the founder and developer of the Web sites UsAgainstGreed.org, PayUpNow.org and RappingHistory.org, and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at paul@UsAgainstGreed.org.

http://www.alternet.org/economy/carnage-capitalism?akid=12138.265072.pC6w-o&rd=1&src=newsletter1015885&t=13&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Democratic Party operatives seek to stifle opposition, facilitate police crackdown in Ferguson, Missouri

By Eric London
18 August 2014

Democratic Party-affiliated organizations led by Al Sharpton held a meeting Sunday at Greater Grace Church outside Ferguson, Missouri in an effort to diffuse opposition to the August 9 police murder of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Over 700 people attended the meeting, a reflection of the mass anger in Ferguson over the killing of Brown and the militarized crackdown on protests that has followed. From start to finish, however, the meeting bore all the trademarks of a carefully planned Democratic Party operation, orchestrated by Sharpton’s National Action Network in close collaboration with the police, the local Democratic machine and the Obama administration.

Al Sharpton arrives at Greater Grace Church on Sunday

Aside from Sharpton, who gave the keynote address, the line-up included Democratic Congressman William Clay, Martin Luther King III, attorney Benjamin Crump, and Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson. Jesse Jackson was also present but did not speak.

The message issued by all the major speakers was clear: go home, register to vote and pray.

Religious paeans set the tone of the meeting, which unfolded as an exercise in obfuscation. Bishop L.O. Jones introduced the speakers by announcing his support for Johnson, who was appointed last Thursday by Democratic Governor Jay Nixon to oversee the antidemocratic crackdown that has swept the city. Nixon has declared a “state of emergency” to facilitate police repression.

The night after the event, police under Johnson’s direction fired tear gas and deployed armored vehicles against peaceful protesters, well before the midnight curfew, which has now been extended indefinitely.

“Captain Johnson has been doing a very fine job,” Jones said. “He is a fine man, he is working very hard, and may he be in our prayers.”

Johnson has played a central role in the ruling class’s efforts to divert opposition to widespread police brutality. As an African-American man from Ferguson, the political establishment felt he was well qualified to play the role of “good cop,” while giving them room to intensify the attack.

With consummate hypocrisy, Johnson told the audience: “I will protect your right to protest.” He then added that he hoped the events would teach him “to be a better black father.”

“This is my neighborhood,” he claimed. “You are my family, you are my friends. I am you.”

Johnson’s cynicism was outdone only by Sharpton himself, who expressly encouraged those in attendance to appeal to the most right-wing elements of the ruling class. Naming Florida’s Republican Governor Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by name, Sharpton shouted demagogically: “Nobody can go to the White House until they stop by our house.”

Sharpton went on to proclaim, “We’re not anti-police, we’re not anti-sitting down and solving the problem.”

He then denounced the residents of the town for not voting for the Democratic Party in recent elections: “Some of y’all that are mad now weren’t mad three weeks ago for election day,” he said. “We’ve got to vote. Twelve percent [election turnout] is an insult to your children.”

He went on to insult those who stayed out to demonstrate at night: “There is a difference between an activist and a thug,” he said. He concluded his remarks by calling for a voter registration drive and for young people to join his personal political machine, the NAN.

The biggest applause from the audience came when Sharpton made a brief reference to the immense social and economic crisis in Ferguson and similar cities throughout the country, saying that if the government had money to militarize the police, it had money to spend on jobs programs to put people to work. This point was greeted with a standing ovation.

Sharpton and all the main speakers at the event, however, are Democratic Party politicians and strong supporters of the Obama administration. Under Obama, vast resources have been handed out to the banks and Wall Street, while the ruling class has waged war against the jobs and living standards of the working class. Obama has also presided over an immense increase in the militarization of the police as part of a broader assault on basic democratic rights.

Several speakers made direct appeals to Obama. When Congressman Clay said, “I want to give a big shout out to the president and Attorney General Holder for stepping it up,” the applause was subdued. After Clay’s comment, a majority of the audience began engaging in side conversations. The parents of Michael Brown found their way off the stage.

The hollow refrain issued by the speakers stood in stark contrast to the explosive tensions that hung over the suburban city of 20,000 as the meeting took place. Several hours after the conclusion of the meeting, thousands of demonstrators gathered along West Florissant Street before dusk fell. The mood was a mix of elation and apprehension as the curfew approached.

Alongside the imposition of a curfew, Nixon has asserted for himself the powers available to him during a “state of emergency.”

According to Missouri law, a state of emergency may be called during a “man-made disaster of major proportions.”

Such a disaster allows the governor “to assume all direct operational control of all emergency [i.e. armed] forces and volunteers in the state” and to “seize, take, or requisition to the extent necessary to bring about the most effective protection of the public” any transportation, housing, or energy sources in the area.

The meeting called yesterday only confirms that the entire political establishment—including the likes of Sharpton and Jackson—are united in their determination to suppress and if necessary violently repress with all the powers of the state the popular opposition that has erupted over the police murder of Michael Brown.

Hillary Clinton’s sobering recent interview is another example of how the Gipper’s sunny nationalism won’t go away

Reagan is still killing us: How his dangerous “American exceptionalism” haunts us today

 

Reagan is still killing us: How his dangerous "American exceptionalism" haunts us today
Ronald Reagan (Credit: AP/Ira Schwarz)

As the chaos in Missouri has reminded us this past week, the gap between what the United States is supposed to be and what it actually is remains more than large enough to fit a SWAT team or two. But while the always-childish fantasy of a post-racial America is choked by tear gas and pummeled by rubber and wooden bullets, the past few days have also seen the resurgence of another distinguishing aspect of the American character: Our unshakable belief in our own superiority, and our unwavering optimism that said superiority means we can right the world’s many wrongs.

I’m thinking, of course, of Hillary Clinton’s recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, an interview that my colleague Joan Walsh rightly described as “sobering” for any progressive who’d resigned herself to a Clinton candidacy but hoped the former secretary of state had lost the martial inclination that likely cost her the presidency in 2008. Because while it’s true that some in the media (especially those with a neoconservative worldview) exaggerated the forcefulness of Clinton’s criticisms, it’s also true that Clinton reminded us that her view of the world differs from the president’s in some fundamental ways.

“You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” Clinton told the hawkish Goldberg, implicitly arguing that Obama’s relative reluctance to send U.S. troops into other countries was no better than his predecessor’s belief that no problem was too big to be solved by an American with a gun. Sounding another dog-whistle for the unreconstructed neo-imperialists among us, she went on to complain that “we don’t even tell our own story very well these days,” chalking up America’s diminished global reputation not to its policies but rather its shoddy branding. (This is a move conservative Republicans pull after every election loss, which should tell you something of its intellectual merit.)



The key moment, however, was what came next, after Clinton’s use of the corporate “tell our story” cliché, when Goldberg said that “defeating fascism and communism is a pretty big deal.” “That’s how I feel!” was Clinton’s enthusiastic response, before she added, with faux modesty, that a belief in the U.S. as global savior “might be an old-fashioned idea,” but she’d keep it all the same. It was a striking exchange not just for its historical ignorance (when it comes to defeating both Nazism and Bolshevism, it’s the people in the Soviet Union and its satellites, not Americans, who deserve the credit most) but also for its schmaltziness and the way it put a folksy, heartland spin to a historical narrative that inexorably leads to militarism.

For all the ways he’s disappointed when it comes to ending the neo-imperial era of American foreign policy, President Obama doesn’t talk like this. He doesn’t go for the kind of rhetoric that places the U.S. as the protagonist and hero in a geopolitical drama of good vs. evil. And unlike Clinton, he doesn’t talk about groups of Islamic extremists as if they’re simply the latest versions of a cosmic evil that once took the forms of Nazi Germany and the USSR. He’s a nationalist, sure; and he certainly shares Clinton’s preference for a global order in which America pretends to be first among equals, when the real balance of power is anything but. Still, Obama, unlike Clinton, doesn’t talk about the world as if it were the stage for a great struggle between slavery and freedom. He knows that kind of talk was discredited by the results of our foreign policy from 2002 to 2008.

Weirdly, Clinton’s decision to speak about the U.S.’s role in global politics as if she, in contrast to Obama, was an unapologetic, “old-fashioned” believer in American exceptionalism made her sound like no one so much as Ronald Reagan, the last president who told a humbled America to buck up and forget its recent mistakes. Indeed, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes noted this week when he hosted historian Rick Perlstein, whose new book on Reagan depicts him as absolver-in-chief, Clinton is seemingly “channeling Reagan in a very similar political moment” as that which confronted “the Gipper” after the trauma of the chaotic ’60s, Richard Nixon and Watergate. Pushing back against what Perlstein described as Obama’s attempt to inject “nuance” and “complexity” into our foreign policy debates, Clinton instead wants us to reclaim the “old-fashioned” belief that conquering “evil” is the special job of the exceptional USA.

It’s possible that this is all so much pre-campaign positioning on Clinton’s part, but I think she means it. After all, for someone planning to enter the Democratic Party presidential primary, being described as sounding like Ronald Reagan is, well, not great. But in fairness to Clinton, if you take a step back and listen to how most postwar presidents have spoken, she’s not breaking from the norm or doing something new. On the contrary, she’s signaling her intentions to return to a former status quo — it just happens to be one that poorly served most Americans as of late. Since the era of Reagan, and for much of the century before, most national-level politicians have exploited Americans’ characteristic optimism and belief in their country’s virtue to push a foreign policy that supposedly spread freedom, but really helps capital by meddling in the lives of poor people who live far, far away.

So here’s a prediction about Hillary Clinton and the 2016 presidential race. At one point or another, there will be a television ad in which Hillary Clinton will speak of bringing back the former glory of the United States. She’ll say it’s time to mark an end to nearly 20 years of terrorism, depression, war and defeat. It’s time to feel good again about being the leader of the free world. It’s morning in America; and everything is great.

 

Elias Isquith is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith, and email him at eisquith@salon.com.

 

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