Tuesday, May 18

A Conservative Liberal in a Time of Either / Or

The Australian: Bill Kauffman: An underdog may be the best antidote to neo-cons [May 18, 2004]
Kauffman's is the sort of article that could not be written by anyone caught up in the current climate of polarized political anxiety that reigns in the United States. On the one hand, we have the Neo-cons saying that either Americans vote George Bush into the office he currently holds, or they will lose the war on terror and forever live in a terror-ravaged world; on the other hand, the Democrats and anybody-but-Bush partisans claim that either Americans vote for Kerry and support him in everything he does and says, or they will be faced with at least four more years of unmitigated international terrorism and national fiscal and cultural turmoil at the hands of Bush, Inc. While the second of these two either/or scenarios has at least some substance to it (whereas the first should force just about any stable-minded individual to fall from their chair in a bout of incontrollable laughter), the second scenario is no more justified, in the end, and its consequences are pernicious. The scenario is not as pernicious in its consequences as would be that of Cheney and Rumsfeld and the rest of their corporate militarists running policy in the U.S. and abroad for another four years, but it is pernicious in so far as it is being used to steal from citizens the process of debate that is crucial to keeping a democracy vital (or, rather, of restoring some measure of democratic vitality to what is currently, on the whole, a culture of polarized thoughtlessness). An Either/Or climate gives a free pass to candidates and discourages political accountability.

Kerry deserves support simply on the grounds that he is running against Bush. Anyone who is not i) an irresponsible millionaire or billionaire, ii) a fossil fuel or weapons investor, or iii) a sadly duped citizen who believes that voting for Bush will serve her own interests, can easily accept that Kerry is preferable to Bush simply for not being Bush. Nonetheless, it is the responsibility of citizens who support Kerry to demonstrate that they have not severed their critical capacities out of a blind anti-Bush rage and that they still keep major issues and stakes in focus. Kerry has an impressive record of voting to support progressive causes for many years. But there are several issues on which his silence, or his vocal backing of Bush, are cause for concern. For instance, his silence on the camp of international lawlessness, thuggery, and bullying known as Guantanamo is troubling, to say the least. Even Kerry's wife has clearly stated that the detainees in that camp should be classified as prisoners of war and not be given the bogus denomination of "lawless combatants" (which is just a stupid formulation for "really, really evil S.O.B. that we intend to humiliate, even in the absence of evidence"). Holding Kerry's hand to the fire on this one issue, for instance, does not mean that voters have to begin looking for a single positive thing in the horrific presidency of George Bush (a vain enterprise, if ever), nor that they have to consider withdrawing their vote for Kerry and placing it with another candidate. What it means, simply, is that they have to challenge their own candidate and show him that their votes contribute to building him a mandate that amounts to more than just, "We want you to be somebody other than George Bush."

In the either/or climate that reigns in the United States these days, it is not surprising that it apparently took an Australian to point out all the positive aspects of Ralph Nader's candidacy without blushing in shame or swearing that he (the author) is not, in fact, a clandestine Bush sympathizer. It is a sign of the times that the syndicated "liberal" radio program that debuted many weeks ago invited Nader to speak only to shout him down ruthlessly, and now refuses to speak about his platorm or activities, or even to mention his name. (And just how "liberal" is that, America?) What Kauffman pulls off in his article, in a way that Air America Radio would never tolerate, is to show how Nader takes positive aspects of both conservative and liberal perspectives and melds them into a coherent, uncompromised vision of anti-corporate, anti-corporate-war leadership.

Nader speaks in an uncomprised manner to power in a way that Kerry supporters only wish their candidate would. Kerry's not doing so, his supporters hope, is only a strategic quietness, a deliberate attempt to wait for the right moment to strike or for the point beyond which Bush's own self-damage can no longer be mended. Although these explanations beg the question of what sort of leader Kerry is, the hopes that Kerry is only holding his cards may, in fact, prove to be well-founded, and there is no sound reason for hoping against them. As Nader himself said of Kerry, he is a "work in progress" and his voting record, as well as the verbal support he has shown progressive causes, especially in the fashion of Dean and Edwards, can itself auger good things. Lip service, said Nader, is sometimes the first step to reform. Until Kerry can actually turn this corner, however, Nader will remain the best antidote to the Neo-cons and not be (as he is contemptuously referred to in most circles) a mere "spoiler." This much is certain: in order not to inherit and thus perpetuate much of the distortions to national and international law that the Neo-cons have imposed upon us in the last three years, Kerry, as president, would have to be extremely vocal and active for a long time in overturning Bush-signed legislation and Bush-supported policy.

Kerry's beating Bush will without a doubt be cause for unbridled celebration. But once the party is over (if that party ever happens), we will wake up to a day in which the legacy of Bush remains with us. Let us hope that those who are intent on voting for anybody-but-Bush help to select a candidate that has the staying power not to become Bush by inheritance. The U.S. needs a radical shift in its foreign and domestic policy, and such a radical shift cannot be obtained by anyone who refuses, for instance, to call Guantanamo a dungeon of lawlessness.

Let me cite an exchange in which Kerry is asked to speak about Guantanamo and replies in abstract and uncommitted language. It is the only known place where I have seen Kerry quoted on Guantanamo, and it comes from Kerry's own website:

Q: What is your opinion on the detentions at Guantanamo, and what would you do about the prisoners being held there if you are elected?

Kerry: I am deeply concerned that the Bush Administration has thrown basic civil liberties out the window in their efforts to make Americans feel safer, while doing little to actually make them safer. I do not trust John Ashcroft to protect our civil liberties.
(I would appreciate if anyone could locate other Kerry statements on Guantanamo that may exist.)

The point of this post is not to perpetuate the idiotic Republican-constructed myth of "Kerry, the flip-flopper," or to attack Kerry on character grounds by saying that he is too soft, not bitter or loud enough, etc. The former myth has been demolished, and while Kerry has been curiously silent on Guantanamo for all we can tell, as Diogenes has pointed out to me, he has made strong statements concerning the abuses of detained citizens at Abu Ghraib, and even has stated that responsibility for the abuse of prisoners extends to the Oval Office.

The point of this post, rather, is to suggest that it is much too early to "close ranks" against Bush if by that we mean closing our minds. To me, Guantanamo stands as the Bush administration's most egregious example of contempt for international law and its corresponding cult of executive sovereignty. It would be odd, indeed, for Kerry to step into Bush's shoes as the 'Sovereign of Guantanamo' who holds the destiny of potentially any U.S. or world citizen in his clutches, especially when John Kerry, for many, is Mr. Anbody-but-Bush.