Friday, February 22, 2008

Why I'm Supporting Barack Obama

The American people are tired of politics that is dominated by the powerful, by the connected. They want their government back.

--Senator Barack Obama

Richard H. Rovere, the New Yorker’s late Washington correspondent, once characterized himself as being radical by intellect, conservative by temperament and liberal by compromise. I would describe myself pretty much the same way. Though I’ve been a registered Democrat since I first began voting, I’ve really had no political home in America. If I lived in Europe, particularly in Italy where I came of age politically, I would vote with the post-communist Left. Contrary to what conservatives have erroneously represented, liberalism in America is not the left end of the political spectrum—it’s really the center, as Arthur Schlesinger once described it in The Vital Center—anymore than classical Burkean conservatism is the right. Though neo-conservatives come closer in belief and behavior to the old right, the far right in America has, since the 19th century, been occupied by a know-nothing native fascism, just as the left was traditionally the domain of communists.

To understand this shift of meaning and attention is to begin to understand the kinds of political derangement the country has been suffering from at least since the Goldwater campaign of 1964, whose aftermath saw the rise of a well-funded conservative movement focused on changing the face of political culture in the U.S., indeed moving the entire country from its natural, non-ideological New Deal liberalism to a hard core conservatism represented by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (remember, Lyndon Johnson was unanimously voted into office in 1964 by an electorate whose majority characterized itself as “liberal.”)

A crucial step in the process of moving the country rightward was the demonization of liberalism by associating it first with communism (even though most liberals were anti-communist) and then as being dangerously “out of step” with mainstream America. Indeed, it could be said that just as McCarthyism had demoralized and destroyed the traditional left in America, so under Ronald Reagan and the rising power of conservative think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, liberalism was both discredited and forced into hiding. The L-word became the bugaboo of American politics. In retrospect, Barry Goldwater’s conservatism appears more like old fashioned libertarianism. Were he alive today, he would doubtless disown the neo-cons.

But I’m not setting out here to write about ideology—that can be for another time. I’m merely attempting to ground my argument—why I’m supporting Barack Obama for president—in the process of my own political evolution.

The first politician I admired was Adlai Stevenson. Although I remember President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom my nominally Republican parents idolized, he was still a shadowy figure from my childhood, a grainy image of a man in a cape, smoking a cigarette in an ivory holder, in Saturday matinee newsreels about the war, the Yalta Conference, and his death in Warm Springs, after which I first saw my father cry. I was in college when Stevenson made his second presidential attempt, in 1956; and I was old enough to understand his speeches, most of which he wrote himself in a resonant, elegantly literate prose (much like Obama’s today) and to canvass for his campaign as a member of Students for Stevenson. My classmates were Ike likers (“I Like Ike” was the first campaign button I remember); and I had separated myself from my parents, who, under the pall of McCarthyism, had re-embraced the Republican party. Once I heard Stevenson deliver his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, I knew this was a man I could believe in, and nothing he did after his considerable loss to Eisenhower (a greater loss to the nation, I might add) disabused me of my admiration for him.

You might expect that after cutting my political teeth on Stevenson I would naturally have given the very first presidential vote of my life to John F. Kennedy, but I didn’t. I was living in Europe, where the Cold War arms build up was not a rhetorical crusade but a fact of life, and it was clear to me that there was very little difference between the militant anti-communism of Kennedy and his Republican opponent Vice-President Richard Nixon. I joined a group of expatriates, who signed letters, petitions and newspaper ads urging Americans living abroad not to vote for either candidate, as a protest against their joint refusal to curtail the nuclear weapons race. Indeed, after his election Kennedy proved to be every bit the Cold Warrior he promised to be.

Returning home frightened by Goldwater’s apparent extremism, I felt compelled to support Lyndon Johnson. I registered to vote as a Democrat and I have not changed that designation since, though I have voted for Republicans, notably Edward Brooke, who served Massachusetts ably as a senator, and Francis Sargent, who was one of the state’s finest governors, an early environmentalist and a liberal Republican of the old school.

I turned against Johnson as soon as he escalated the war in Vietnam, later canvassing for Senator Eugene McCarthy whose upstart presidential campaign drove Johnson from office. When Hubert Humphrey won the 1968 nomination at a convention reminiscent of Nazi Germany, I was forced to make another of the odious choices I have had to make as a Democrat, given the fact that Humphrey’s opponent was none other than Richard Nixon, who campaigned on a plan to end the war, which he kept running for another six years, resulting in the deaths of 55,000 Americans and over a million Vietnamese. After my disappointment at Nixon's 1972 victory over George McGovern, another Stevensonian figure, I voted eagerly for Jimmy Carter in 1976, though as president he, too, disappointed me (he’s since become a hero for his courageous stand against Bush’s pre-emptive wars). I can say nothing more about the Reagan debacle (like Thatcher’s in England) than I wrote in column after column in the Gloucester Daily Times during his tenure as one of the worst presidents in history before Bush. I don’t subscribe to the conservative’s myth of Reagan as having ended the Cold War—not the Reagan who sponsored death squads in El Salvador, while illegally supporting a war against the democratically elected government of Nicaragua with funds secretly obtained by selling weapons to our putative enemy Iran. This was also the president who turned Americans against their own government, another of those conservative-managed derangements I’ve spoken of, under which Americans have been convinced to vote against their own best interests.

After George Bush’s prelude to his son’s invasion of Iraq, I welcomed a young, fresh-faced Bill Clinton to the White House, only to discover that he was another sweet talker, though a highly intelligent one, at least as regards policy matters. I might even have pardoned his philandering had he not done the unthinkable, when he effectively dismantled the Welfare system, "ending Welfare as we know it," and driving thousands of women and children deeper into poverty, not to “reform” a system badly in need of it, but to take the issue away from the Republicans as he prepared to run for a second term. The move was called “triangulation” (adopting for oneself the ideas of one’s opponent, both to take credit for them and to insulate oneself from criticism by the opponent on those issues) and the Clintons have been running on this fuel ever since. (Note: Under George W. Bush 37 million people, or 12.7% of the population, live in poverty, according to the latest Census Bureau figures--the highest poverty rate on record for the U.S.)

I’ve never believed that the Democrats were less corrupt or more honorable than the Republicans. After all, I live in Massachusetts, whose state politics and most of whose offices are controlled by an in-group of Democratic old boys (and girls), as intransigent politically as they are intellectually bankrupt. This is the gang that gave us a string of Republican governors, who have left cities living off lottery funds, turning public schools into dilapidated detention centers, where the only teaching that occurs is to prepare students for useless state competency exams. This is also the crowd we can thank for three LNG terminals that further undermine our endangered fishing industry, while leaving coastal communities more vulnerable to attacks from those who would target the terminals. And we can’t forget the gambling casinos that will soon be built, presumably to increase the state’s tax base, depleted for some twenty-six years as a result of Proposition 2 ½, one of the early anti-government initiatives conservatives foisted on an unsuspecting public. Would the state’s “liberal” Democratic leadership ever push to repeal this dinosaur that’s driven the Commonwealth into penury? Don’t even think about it!

If I’m cynical about the party I’ve belonged to and most of whose candidates I’ve voted for since 1964, the above is self-explanatory. You could ague that I’ve had alternatives in Ralph Nader’s spoiler campaigns or the candidates of the nascent Green Party. However, when you live in a two-party system it’s foolhardy to vote for or support third parties, even if their agendas are appealing. You may feel personally good about it, but you will usually be undercutting the lesser of the two evils we’ve been presented with for most of our recent political history. Of course, one can opt out of the system entirely, but in doing that one cedes any small effectiveness one might otherwise have enjoyed, and you only end up throwing your vote away. Politics in America is, after all, the art of the possible.

But this time I refuse to take the lesser road. As a “Democrat” I now have two choices for my party’s nomination, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and I’m throwing my support to the candidate I believe to be the better choice, Barack Obama. Clinton and her husband (they are indistinguishable politically and they tell us disingenuously that if we vote for Hillary we’ll be getting “two for one”) represent the old politics of either party. Behind them lies the power of the special interests and their lobbies (especially the Israel Lobby, which has had such an inhibiting effect on American foreign policy), the money of the giant corporations and Wall Street, the health insurance cartels, the party hacks and back room old boys, who wouldn’t know a progressive idea if they fell over it; yes, and the Democratic Leadership Council, which has done more than its conservative opponents to undermine what little progressivism remains in the party. Beyond that, the presidency is not Hillary’s entitlement, as she seems to be suggesting. It may be an office she has prepared for and fought for during a good deal of her political life. She may even be the hard working senator she wants us to believe she is. But those not uncommon desires and putative accomplishments do not automatically guarantee her the highest elective office in the land.

If you listen to Hillary, who gave Bush permission (as Barack did not) to fire bomb thousands of women and children in Iraq and won’t repudiate her vote, you’ll hear the same old litany: “universal health care” but not “single payer,” or a much needed national health system, (Hilary and Obama both remain in the thrall of the health insurance industry); the conflation of the working class (which is now poorer than ever) with the middle class, which used to be the working class and still earns what the old working class earns, even as their industrial jobs dwindle or are shipped out of the country; no major critique of Bush’s phony “war on terror,” which has depleted our treasury and turned the rest of the world against us, just the same old “it’s a dangerous world and we need strong, experienced leadership” (it’s a dangerous world because every action Bush takes creates a more threatening reaction). Underlying so much of this is Hillary’s attempt to project a posture of power, of assurance (“I may be a woman but I am as strong and willful as a man.”)

However, the most significant factor for me in my decision not to support Hillary, is her uncritical embrace of neo-liberalism; and that, I believe, is the most insidious force threatening our political, economic and social wellbeing, far more than the canard of “terrorism” or Islamo-fascism. Neo-liberalism, an outgrowth of right-wing libertarian economic and philosophical principles, posits a market-dominated system, which seeks to privatize the entire public sphere into a globalized uber-market, which, according to social philosopher Pierre Bordieu, benefits least those who are most adversely affected by it, including the world’s poor and indigenous peoples whose local economies, communities, languages and folkways are endangered by globalization.

George W. Bush is also a neo-liberal, as is Tony Blair, for neo-liberalism makes no ideological distinctions. Its proponents believe in deregulation of markets, tax relief for the richest corporations and individuals (neither of whom need it), the transformative power of wealth, liberalization of trade, and market-determined interest rates—in other words, in non-governmental interference in an unfettered market. The consequences of neo-liberal economic policies are now being experienced by Americans as our economy falls into recession and millions of working people are losing both their jobs and their homes.

At bottom, Hillary and Obama are scarcely liberals of the Ted Kennedy or Gary Hart schools. They are both moderates and their records on that account do not differ much, though Obama gets higher marks than Hillary on his positions from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action organization.

When you listen to Hillary her speeches are all couched in terms of “I, I, me, me.” In contrast, Obama talks of “we, our, ours and us.” The differences are striking, if you care about the nuances of language and how arguments are framed. Hillary talks about giving us “solutions,” while Obama outlines ways of bringing people together to create our own solutions and to take back our country from the very special interests who support Hillary and Bill Clinton (and Bush). Deeper than that, Obama talks about hope, about caring again for our country and each other. Hillary, instead, raises the old Bush specter of fear. “It’s a dangerous world,” she reminds us, just as Dick Cheney did, while preparing to invade a country that was no threat to us. What emerges is the image of Hillary, who wants to be our first woman president, as Commander in Chief—as a warrior, a polarizing figure right out of the Cold War: “Us against Them.”

In comparison, Obama steps forth as a unifier, a healer. He wants to bring Republicans and Democrats, Independents and the disenfranchised together. I believe Americans are ready for that dialogue; indeed, we yearn for it. After eight years of the world hating us because of George W. Bush’s exceptionalism; eight years of secret government under an imperial presidency; eight years of payoffs to the rich, of thousands of deaths in unnecessary wars, and retaliation, threats and abuse against those of us who have tried to voice our opposition, I think the nation is poised for a new beginning. For that reason I’m placing my hope in Barack Obama.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Some Thoughts on Finishing a New Book

Et in Arcadia ego--Olympia, July 18, 1960

I’ve just finished a new book. It’s a sequel to At the Cut, my memoir of growing up in Gloucester, Massachusetts in the 1940s. I’m tentatively calling this one From Gloucester Out. I should be happy, or at least relieved after the completion of a not insubstantial piece of work. Instead, I feel sad—and it isn’t the melancholy one often experiences after giving birth or reluctantly letting go of something that has engaged us significantly. I’m sad because I think I’ve written a consequential book about how reading liberates, how education empowers, and how speaking up and fighting for what one believes in is ultimately liberating; yet I know there is little hope of its ever finding the kind of publisher who could make it accessible to a wider readership than it will have when it is inevitably published by a small press, or, barring that, when I bring it out myself.

I’ve read the stories about authors who self-publish and whose books are subsequently picked up by trade imprints after they create a sensation. But these books are generally of the self-help variety, or they are novels that would have elicited a commercial interest anyway, due to their subjects or the genre to which they belong—romances, mysteries, thrillers, the occult. There is a further story that accompanies the accounts of success of such books, and that usually tells how the authors promoted them vigorously and often with great creativity. I recently read about a couple in Salem, MA, who spent $50,000 of their own money self-publishing and promoting the wife’s historical novel about women with the ability to read the future in the patterns of old lace to the extent that it won the author a million dollar two-book contract from a major trade publisher. Again: history-mystery-the occult. Also: women's lives.

But I have not written such a book. There is little or no suspense or mystery in the story I’ve tried to tell about my life from high school to the present—the teachers who’ve influenced me, the books that have mattered, the places I’ve visited and the people I’ve met, both in my own country and in Europe. The book is also about my political and intellectual coming of age, narrated against the backdrop of life in America’s oldest fishing port. Furthermore, it’s a record of my search for and discovery of an identity through my involvement in the life of the place where I grew up, a city I left briefly, and, against all expectation, eventually returned home to live and work in.

In my earlier memoir, At the Cut, I wrote about my childhood in one Gloucester neighborhood and about the city, as I watched it change under the pressure of time and historical events. In this sequel, I’ve attempted to write about what it meant to attend a local high school at the height of the McCarthy “Red Scare,” and what it felt like to be a small town boy, the son of Greek immigrants, at an upper class college in New England. I’ve tried to describe what it was like to return to the Europe of my family’s origins during the Cold War—and then to come home on the eve of the war in Vietnam, where I married, started a family, divorced, and have spent the rest of my life living and working.

From Gloucester Out is not a memoir of trauma and recovery. It does not explain how the author overcame addiction, incest or abuse and found religion, peace, or a new life, as many current memoirs do. Neither does it describe how a writer escaped from her New York society life with a distant father and a drug-taking mother, who tried to seduce her boy friends, to find eventual happiness as a housewife and newspaper columnist in rural Montana, as another recent memoir, which one reviewer called “an emotional thriller,” recounts.

My book doesn’t have a single narrative arc--I always tell several stories simultaneously. It isn’t written to mimic a novel, like most memoirs published today. Though separate chapters focus chronologically on my life from high school and college to the present, the narrative also moves backward and forward in time, developing a series of inter-related themes, including my psycho-social development, my search for an identity, my political and intellectual growth, and a prolonged vocational crisis. From Gloucester Out also tells how an alienated bookish young man became a political activist, how I was finally able to combine potentially conflicting interests into parallel careers as a writer, teacher and social worker; indeed, how, contrary to what Thomas Wolfe suggested in You Can’t Go Home Again, I was actually able to return to the place of my birth and enjoy a rewarding life, though not without difficulty and struggle.

All of this should be of interest to book lovers beyond my usual readership on the North Shore of Massachusetts. But I’m skeptical. Agents or editors who have looked at my previous work tell me that because I focus on a single American place, which I know better than any other, my books are “too local,” or that they lack commercial appeal. One agent confided to me that the “gritty, unrelenting realism,” of my novel Broken Trip (which was eventually published by the late Grace Paley and her husband Robert Nichols’s Glad Day Books) wouldn’t sell because “readers want to feel good.” At the very least, they want “redemption.” In writing about loss and pain, about troubled lives at the bottom of the social ladder, about the violence of an addict’s life, I would apparently be depressing my readers, the implication being that everyday life is hard enough for most people, why make them read about adversity when all they are really seeking is escape?

Readers who, like me, grew up and went to school in the 1940s and 50s will remember that it wasn’t always this way. While publishers still churned out best sellers and television had begun to cut into the time many had previously spent reading, there was a wide readership for serious literature. Books also did not have to compete with the Internet, and we had not yet shortened the attention span of readers currently conditioned by cell phones, iPods and text messaging. Equally, the saturation in violent action and the hyper-visual stimulation today’s media offer make it more difficult for a reader to sit for hours absorbed in a book. Life moves too fast for those who do not already have the habit of print.

Nevertheless, like all of my books, my memoir is simply and directly written. I focus on a single American place, a city like Gloucester, which is fairly well known in the world. Even after the notoriety of The Perfect Storm, readers paradoxically don't appear to be curious about other views of Gloucester (so editors tell me); and there are so few readers of serious literary writing, fiction or non-fiction, today anyway. My best hope is to find a small press that will take a chance on me, like Grace and Bob did with Broken Trip, or a university press that likes the way I write and finds my work of some intrinsic interest or value because they ultimately know they won't make much money from me. Otherwise, I will publish and promote my book locally, with a friend’s small press or under the imprint a group of us have created to produce books and promote and distribute them via the Internet.

I am fortunate to have a loyal readership in Gloucester. These are the people I write for and care about, and they respond by coming to readings and buying books. To my great pleasure, they actually want to discuss my books with me. Still, like most writers, it remains my hope that somewhere out there is an editor who will pick up my manuscript and say, "This is interesting. I like the way he writes. The voice is unique and the approach to memoir is original. I think we'll take a chance on it." Perhaps one can still dream...

Addendum: February 21, 2008

As if to corroborate what I wrote about the current state of publishing, this morning's New York Times has a double review of father-son memoirs. The son is writing about his addiction to methamphetamines and the father is writing about the effect his son's addiction had on him. Again: addiction/recovery; trauma/salvation (redemption). The reviewer even notes that the nation seems "addicted" to reading this sort of memoir. I don't know what it will take to break the cycle. Publishers just seem to want to cash in.
But the rejection of books that don't fit into established (and marketable) patterns is a form of censorship, and that is very dangerous. It forces writers either into silence or the pitfalls of self-publication, which is both costly and often self-defeating because it's hard to gain a wider readership. Main stream media outlets don't generally review self-published or small press books. Without reviews book stores won't stock a title, hence sales are limited and the vicious circle continues.

There is a further concern. Just as market demands can act as a kind of censorship, there is the self-censorship writers are often forced to undertake if they write to meet commercial demands instead of writing the books they are compelled to create, books that take their own shape and find their own form, books that say what they want to say, regardless of what commercial publishers feel they can sell or what the readership wants. Some of the greatest books in contemporary literature, like Joyce's Ulysses, would never have existed if their authors had not fearlessly followed their own dictates rather than pandering to a market. Who is to say what significant books are lost to us today as writers turn away from what is best in them, away from the great risks that are inherent in our most important works of art? And what happens to the artist who is not faithful to his or her vision; what damage is done to one's creativity, not to speak of what is lost to the world when a writer or artist does not respond to what is best in him or her?