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The “street” in “movements”

Posted by Jon on 13 November, 2007

I happened across a TPM post-and-discussion about a book called The Bulldozer and the Big Tent. Just a run of the mill “democrats need to have clearer principles” blog discussion. One comment (towards the end of the thread) particularly caught my attention though:

You might want to revisit your American history lessons artappraiser, because every major political evolution in America’s turbulent and violent history, from the borning of this nation, to the civil war, to the labor rights and union struggles, to the womans rights movements, to the civil rights movements, to the ending of the Viet Nam war were struggles fought and won by large street movements. The delays are always the result of political or legal processes. With regard to Iraq, and the Bush governments insidious and ruthless nazification of America, – there will be no change in any of these policies through the political or legal systems. The Bush government and the republican reich have total control of both systems, and will not relinquish that control peacefully.

Calling the major movements of the past “street movements” isn’t the way they are typically discussed. “Movements,” yes – but the emphasis on the “street” is usually missing.

I find this interesting particularly because of my love of Jane Jacobs and the resulting fact that I see our built environment as shaping our economic and social interactions. To be more clear: recognizing the “street” nature of historical American movements (and both historical and contemporary movements in foreign nations) brings to light how important are the social connections formed by people in cities and towns which provide the basis for movements to occur. Within car-based culture, lives are atomistic and non-hierarchical, emergent social movements are less likely. In a world where what Jacobs considers “general-purpose public spaces” are designated solely/primarily for automobile use, and in which there is little to no casual public mingling, how do mass movements develop? Moreover, how do they express their power, particularly if they are antagonistic to established powers.

It seems that, in general, they don’t. Actually, we can see movements with real political power today. Considering the Christian Right, for example, it’s obvious that they are based on a social connections formed in public mingling which lend themselves to political mobilization. However, their social web is centered on the church building (parts of the civil rights movement were also church-centered, of course).

With everyone spread out and atomistic, “movements” become diffused and watered down.

Posted in culture, political economy, politics, urbanism | 1 Comment »

Precedent, ethics and Kucinich’s articles of impeachment

Posted by Jon on 7 November, 2007

Dennis Kucinich is truly one of the few people to hold an elected office – certainly at the national level – who exhibits any character today.

Yesterday (2007-11-06) Kucinich introduced articles to impeach Dick Cheney, charging that he warped intelligence to lead us into a war. Of course, the boundary line for “sane” and “delusional” in America today ought to be whether one considers these charges to be self-evident or not.

Kucinich has apparently introduced similar articles in the past – actually just after the Democrats gained a majority in Congress – and they have languished on the House Judiciary Committee’s table since at least April. You can thank Nancy Pelosi and almost all other Democrats and Republicans in office for blocking motion on this issue.

Of course, yesterday’s articles will also probably be tabled and never truly debated. That Kucinich got to read them into the record on the House floor at all seems due to an odd circumstance wherein many Republicans ended up voting to accept the bill for debate and send it to committee, rather than tabling it without consideration. [Watch Kucinich read the articles on cspan] This may be due to the perception (and I firmly believe it is a false perception, or at least pray it is a false perception) that actually proceeding to debate on impeachment would harm the Democrats politically because Americans don’t desire impeachment. [See discussion at Daily Kos]

One of the core problems we face, however, is that the Democrats in general are no less complicit in the crimes which have been perpetrated than are the Republicans. They could, relatively easily, defund the war. They could actually choose not to confirm Attorney General nominees who waffle about the nature and legality of torture. As Arthur Silber at “Once Upon a Time…” discusses, that they do not take any such actions, even when popular sentiment supports them, is evidence that most Beltway Democrats are just as committed to the basic cause of imperial rule as the Republicans. They differ primarily in their cohesion, and in quibbling over the means of imperialism abroad and corporatist authoritarianism (i.e., fascism) at home.

The worst of it all is that impeachment will probably never happen. Even if the war is ended and things get a bit better temporarily (I’m not holding my breath), without at least impeachment and removal from office – and more preferably, removal and prosecution for war crimes – the door is open for someone with even more chutzpah than Bush & Co. to push even further. Everyone has heard of Caesar, but Caesar could not have made bid for supreme power as he did a century earlier. The checks and balances of the Roman Republic were still strong enough that a would-be tyrant would probably end up dead, exiled or otherwise broken, assuming that the more widely distributed power base of earlier centuries could have been overcome by one man.

But I’d guess that most people aren’t as familiar with Lucious Cornelious Sulla, the Roman aristocrat who ruled as dictator from 82-80 BC. Sulla led an interesting life – he was sold into slavery at one point; later, he was a very successful general. During his dictatorship he began the practice of publishing proscription lists of people he had decided were threats to the state or to himself. After his reign of terror resulted in the death or exile of virtually all opponents, he stepped down, restored constitutional government and led a generally quiet and peaceful retirement (although he still “consulted,” and his advice was generally taken as a command). Sulla himself committed many injustices, though he seems to have believed his actions necessary for the survival of Rome (don’t all tyrants?). In Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic, Tom Holland describes his real legacy:

Sulla had given the Romans their first glimpse of what it might mean to be the subjects of an autocrat, and it had proved a frightening and salutary one. This was a discovery that could never be unmade. After the proscriptions, no one could doubt what the extreme consequence of the Roman appetite for competition and glory might be, not only for Rome’s enemies but for her citizens themselves. What had once been unthinkable now lurked at the back of every Roman’s mind: “Sulla could do it. Why can’t I?” [p. 106; emphasis added]

Bush is no Sulla – Sulla at least distinguished himself as a general and earned the loyalty of his troops by looking out for their interests, which was one reason they backed him. But if he is less of a leader, the precedent he sets is equally potent for future generations. Presidential candidates now debate the semantics of the word “torture”, with the implication that if they can define torture narrowly enough it is acceptable. That their “evidence” in arguing for the merits of torture is a television show simply underlines the insanity of the age. The gap between the top and the bottom in a nation the size of the United States is perhaps much greater than that in ancient Rome, where politics was a more personal matter. Most of us don’t look at Bush and realistically think we can climb to the top to rule supreme over an empire. But as the Florida “Don’t taze me bro” incident and countless others show, there are many petty little tyrants who are now inspired to rule their little turfs without shame.

To come back to Kucinich: impeachment is the minimal line in the sand. Without some tangible action to hold people at the top accountable, our society and our ethics will only fall further into the mud. If Bush & Co. retire gracefully as Sulla did, the precedent is set and the lesson that power is its own justification will be impressed into the American psyche. Only if Bush & Co. are thrown out of office (even if belatedly) and prosecuted fully can we avoid that outcome; and further, we have the opportunity to set a different precedent: that unconscionable behavior will draw opposition and that such opposition can be strong enough to prevail. Without such actions, “government of the people, by the people and for the people” has already perished from the Earth.

Posted in ethics, politics, society | Leave a Comment »

Hillary Clinton’s energy plan

Posted by Jon on 6 November, 2007

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has released an outline of her energy plan. Although there aren’t many details, it’s actually not that bad. There is, at the least, a recognition of the economic benefits, particularly new job creation, that would come with a fundamental shift towards greener energy and economic activity. Her proposed Carbon Reduction Mortgage Association would be a good first step towards building more efficient and sustainable housing.

She does not, however, seem to propose much change in the transportation arena. Increased automobile efficiency and greater emphasis on biofuels and electrics – that seems to be the sum of it. Nor is there any real recognition of the major and interrelated problems – as yet relatively undiscussed by high-profile candidates – that loom in regards to energy and culture.

1. No emphasis on shifting away from car-dependent/car-normative culture as it has developed in the US over the past three-quarters of a century. More efficient cars are good, and cars that can run on a wider variety of fuels are good – but these are both band-aid solutions given the larger issues of peak oil, suburban sprawl and the decimation of urban neighborhoods. We could live comfortably and well with relatively few cars and well-developed urban areas and rail systems. I don’t think we can continue to live with – or should wish to continue to live with – car-centered lives even if efficiency measures were sufficient to support such lifestyles. They are not sufficient however, which makes the lack of broader and more transformative visions of how to deal with energy scarcity even more inadequate.

2. Hillary’s plan doesn’t seem to address peak oil issues in any direct way. I hope they play a factor in the development of the plan, but until these issues become at least as widely embedded in public consciousness as global warming we won’t even start to have a serious chance to address the issue. Of course, global warming hasn’t been in addressed in much more than lip service – so maybe not even then.

Posted in economy, energy, politics, sustainability | 1 Comment »

Ezra Klein: Generation Overwhelmed

Posted by Jon on 23 October, 2007

Ezra Klein: Generation Overwhelmed

The discussion at Ezra Klein’s blog is about an article on my generation’s apathy/cynicism/etc. I do think that the combination of consumerism and the dramatic expansion in both type and quantity of media is one root cause of the lack of political activism among people I know (and me). Through media, particularly the internet, the flow of data regarding problems is so great that it’s difficult even to keep track of, much less focus on beginning to solve, the various problems in the world. Here’s an off-the-top-of-my-head list of political/social/economic issues that I consider critical or at least very important. Some of these are more specific issues, and some are larger trends that touch on many areas and interrelate. This just makes everything more complicated!:

  • Peak Oil, and the resulting risks of supply shock. Essentially, the entire technological-economic structure of industrially developed societies needs to be fundamentally overhauled. Fat chance. Root cause of much of the war and social injustice on an international scale in this era.
  • Global climate change.
  • Suburban sprawl/Car Culture. Among other results, produces a loss of wilderness and agricultural land in close proximity to urban areas and destroys the social and economic fabric of urban areas.
  • Surveillance culture. The loss of privacy/anonymity in public spaces; the monitoring, by government and commercial concerns, of private behavior (including but not limited to things like warrentless wiretaps and consumer “club cards”).
  • Debt, both consumer and national. Among other effects, large scale debt acts as chains restricting adaptability and freedom to choose new directions.
  • Decline of the Nation-State System. This is a long process and not necessarily bad, in itself, as the nation-state is responsible for much of the suffering in the last several centuries, and for suffering at larger scales. But we are entering a period of increasing social and economic instability as the world shifts to some other method of organization – multiple alternative systems will be competing for dominance. And periods of similar instability in the past have been bloody and unpleasant for all concerned (see, e.g., the 17th century).
  • More specifically, the Decline of the American Empire. The biggest problem here is that no empire I can think of has ever passed away into old age gracefully. See, as a small example, the mindset of all the “viable” candidates for the 2008 presidential election: attacks on Iran (which would make Iraq look like fun) are “reasonable” to consider. More to the point, consider that widespread use of American force, and the expectation that America should and is capable of bending others to its will is, perhaps more than anything except a large campaign chest, the defining criteria of “viability”. Anti-imperialists need not apply.
  • Theocratic and anti-intellectual/anti-rational tendencies in American citizens.

This is a partial list, and I’ll post additional factors and issues as they occur to me, and then perhaps begin delving into them with more detail and structure to my arguments.


  • Soil and water degradation and loss
  • the so-called Culture of Corruption, which is, I’ll argue, far more widespread and pervasive than generally discussed. More broadly, much of American culture today seems to provide incentives for behavior that is counter-productive, destructive and sociopathic.
  • Income and Wealth Gap (and concentration of wealth at the top), now growing towards (if not at already) Gilded Age proportions; economic and power hierarchies more generally
  • Consumerism, as a driving force behind much of these problems
  • Specialization/professionalization/industrialization of more and more of life. Legalization (in the sense of dealing with an issue through law/rulemaking), not the making of something, previously illegal, legal. Related to the tendency of the rate of change to accelerate and everything to grow towards being incomprehensibly complex over time.

Posted in culture, politics, society | Leave a Comment »

Posted by Jon on 14 October, 2007

A lecture by Lawrence Lessig about his new project on corruption – worth listening to:

Posted in ethics, politics, society, uncategorized | Leave a Comment »