Shulamith Firestone. Photograph by Michael Hardy, circa 1970.
Susan Faludi’s biographical study of Shulamith Firestone in the current New Yorker is required reading for anyone interested in the history of the last third of the twentieth century. It restores to her proper place one of the most inspired and original political intellectuals of the sixties, and a founder of modern feminism. I can speak personally here of the impact of Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex (1970) on my own life. When I first read the book, upon its publication, I immediately recognized that its portrait of a universal system of male domination rooted in the family was both the most important challenge to the Marxism, which had shaped my worldview, and an equally important corrective to its blind spots. My 1972 book, Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life began as a review of Firestone’s work, and proposed both to answer and to learn from it.
Faludi gives a powerful and moving account of Firestone’s brief, brilliant career and its tragic aftermath. Firestone was only twenty-five years old when she published Dialectic of Sex and when she died last year, at the age of sixty seven, she was alone, impoverished, forgotten and had been diagnosed as schizophrenic for decades. In recounting this tragic story, Faludi touches on a related topic, the split between women’s liberation and the Left, in which Firestone participated. In my view this is one of the most important, if not fully understood, stories of recent U.S. history.
Anyone who has failed to note the complete capitulation of American progressives to the Obama line should consider the dramatic contrast posed today on the question of the president’s “right” to assassinate American citizens. On the one hand, Rand Paul, a Republican icon, has mounted a one-man filibuster to protest the appointment of John Brennan, one of the architects of Obama’s assassination policy, as Director of the CIA. As Paul argues, the current “guidelines,” drawn up by the Obama “team,” would have allowed President Nixon to assassinate Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Staughton Lynd, and others during the Vietnam War. Why has it taken a rightist to point out what progressives should have been screaming about for years? Where have such figures as Maddow, Dionne, Herzberg, Chait, Tomasky, Edsall, and others have been?
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has argued that President Obama has the legal authority to use predator drones such as this one for targeted strikes against U.S. citizens. Credit: U.S. Air Force.
An answer to this question can be found by reading Michael Moore’s encomium to the film Zero Thirty Hours, which appeared recently in Huffington Post. The film is a highly sophisticated ratification of the whole set of assumptions that Americans hold regarding 9/11. As is frequently repeated in the film: we were innocents, attacked from outside, 3000 fellow citizens were killed. True, the film portrays America as using torture, but in a context that makes that usage understandable, though not necessarily wise.
Obama’s inauguration today provides the opportunity for a tentative overview of his still uncompleted two-term presidency. To be sure, he will always be remembered as the first African-American president, but what else will we remember him for? In this regard let us consider his domestic and his foreign policy achievements separately.
In terms of domestic policy, the main course of Obama’s presidency was set when he fell into the trap, set not just by right wing Republicans but by such false friends as David Brooks and Tom Friedman, of making the budget deficit the overriding issue. Of course, the deficit was unavoidable, but every Democratic president since Roosevelt has understood that this issue had to be subordinated to the larger goals and values of American society. Obama’s failure to grasp the need to rise above the merely economic has meant that his eight years will have been largely dominated by a series of pointless “cliffs,” “grand bargains,” concessions to austerity and the rest. Not only that, but his legacy promises to remain a series of arguments over the deficit, and not a vision of who we are as a people, and where we want to go.
An interesting debate has broken out over Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln.” The debate revolves around whether the film adequately credits the role of the abolitionists and of the rebelling slaves in bringing about the end of slavery. A second question is the relevance of the film to the Obama presidency, and the possibility of comparing Lincoln and Obama.
What will Obama do with his (and our) electoral victory? The answer depends on understanding Obama. There are two possibilities.
One theory, widespread among progressives, is that Obama is one of them, perhaps a bit more “pragmatic” than they would like, but basically a person for whom social justice is the central value. According to this theory the many compromises of Obama’s first term reflected inexperience, excess caution, or structural (constitutional) limits; the expectation is that these will be less pressing in the second term. Those who hold this view of Obama hope that he will use his victory to impose a progressive deal on the Republicans (i.e., lower the tax cuts on the rich and minimal changes in entitlements.)
Two powerful op-ed pieces in today’s New York Times help me to clarify my disquiet with the Obama presidency.
The first by Amy Wilentz, explains the origins of the concept of the “Zombie.” The life of the slave in Haiti was so brutal and unbearable that the slaves often preferred suicide, which was imagined as a return to Africa (lan guinée), a phrase that in Creole even today means heaven. Against this threat, the masters devised and played on the idea of the Zombie, a species of living dead, who would never be able to return to Africa and instead would perform slave labor forever.
The second piece by Ben Mattlin opposes the Massachusetts assisted suicide law, to be voted on next week. Mattlin was born with spinal muscular atrophy. He has never stood, or walked, or had much use of his hands. Roughly half the infants born with this condition die by the age of two, but Mattlin is nearly fifty and, as he writes, “a husband, father, journalist and author.” Living his whole life so close to death he recounts the many times well-meaning doctors and relatives wanted to “spare” him, and the state. No one chooses suicide in a vacuum he notes.
The two stories make the same point: the priority of the human spirit over the body. Mattlin writes so beautifully that it is hard to imagine the wracked body from which his words emanate. It is in good part to affirm the beauty of the human spirit– in other words, of freedom– that most Americans, and citizens of other countries, gladly spend so much money on keeping the very ill, and the very old, alive. Wilentz’s story teaches the same lesson from the opposite point of view. Without a spirit, without freedom, the body is worthless. If we give up our understanding of the priority of the spirit over the body we tend to become zombies ourselves.
If Obama wins, there will be a collective sigh of relief that Romney has been defeated but probably not much excitement over a meandering and uninspiring campaign’s victory. But if Obama loses there will be a great debate among Democrats as to what went wrong. Some will say that Obama went too far to the left, others to the right. But inevitably, the Left will be blamed for not being sufficiently supportive– not recognizing his achievements, saving us from another Great Depression, achieving health care and banking reform, supporting women’s rights, etc., etc. For me, Obama needed nothing so much as an independent, critical Left, but if he fails to gain reelection the failure will be his. Consider the record:
1-The Budget: Since 1933 the Right has had one mantra: cut government spending; balance the budget. In one way or another Democratic politicians have had to finesse this issue for the simple reason that the government’s budget is not the same as a household, and the government can run a deficit for such ends as wars or to make social advances. As to entitlements, they are called that for a reason. They were instituted to counterbalance the permanent inequities that the market brings.
Obama’s first great failure is that he has allowed the Republicans to define his agenda for him, by falling into their trap of conceding that the budget was the number one problem facing us. Its Obama that appointed Bowles-Simpson, that agreed to sequestration, that has made cutting government spending THE inevitable issue for the next decade or so. This is one huge reason for his failure, if he fails.
2- Health Care: The health care issue is left over from the New Deal reforms. Health care is a right, an entitlement, just as good public schools and safe streets and roads are rights. Obama’s second great failure was to redefine health care as a cost-cutting issue. Reforms don’t speak for themselves. Of course if the Republicans win, they will gut health care, but even if they lose we are in for a series of fights centered on cutting health care costs. Let us never forget, it was Obama who first raised the issue of how much money we were spending on people in the last six months of their life. In doing so, he let the Republicans pose as the defenders of Medicare, his second disastrous mistake.
Barack Obama lost the first debate for one reason: he couldn’t take a consistent left/center position and defend it coherently for 90 minutes. Romney had a philosophical point of view and a debating strategy. Obama tried to convey reasonableness, decency, the complexity of modern problems and so forth but always making sure he wouldn’t be seen as a leftist. Strikingly, Obama didn’t mention the 47%, one of the most repulsive remarks ever made by an American Presidential candidate, and guaranteed to turn a great part of the country against Romney. Similarly, he barely mentioned social inequality or women. Instead he reverted to his first three years (prior to Occupy Wall Street) in which he basically ran by claiming to be the more grown-up of the two candidates. His strategy was obvious: pick up some independents; no need to worry about his base, because they will support him whatever he does. But you can’t lead the country without rallying your base. Only the kind of progressive agenda that began to emerge after the OWS demonstrations last fall can revive his candidacy or give meaning to his Presidency. Only with the development of an independent left, centered on the problem of inequality, can some rationality and direction be restored to our politics.
The Democratic Convention speakers did an excellent job of convincing the country that this is a “choice” election, pitting two rival philosophies of government against each other. And they are right in principle: the country does need to choose between conservatives who distrust government and put their faith in markets, and liberals who believe that government is a necessary counterweight to business. Rhetoric aside, however, we will have no such debate. To understand why, we have to look at the recent history of the Democratic Party, and especially at the Clinton Presidency.
The Democratic Presidents of the sixties, such as Kennedy and Johnson, were the children of the New Deal. Similarly, the conservative Republicans who came to power in the 1980 election of Reagan were opponents of the New Deal. Faced with a strong challenge from the right during the seventies and eighties, Democrats could have forthrightly defended progressive principles, albeit revised for changing times. After all, these principles had defeated fascism, created the modern middle class, ushered in forty years of prosperity and sparked the civil rights and feminist revolutions. However, the Democrats made no such arguments.
Under Bill Clinton’s leadership, first as head of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and then as president, they advocated and enacted a “third way.” This meant that they became pro-business, promising to shrink government, deregulate the economy, and attack “dependency.” Most importantly, they accepted the Republican idea that balancing the budget had to be at the center of the national agenda, abandoning their earlier view of the budget as a tool of national planning. The result was an effective fund-raising and election-winning strategy, but one that had two disastrous consequences from the point of view of a national debate.
by: Eli Zaretsky on August 29th, 2012 | Comments Off
When I was a child at camp, one of the summer highlights was “color war.” The entire camp, including counselors and staff, would be arbitrarily divided into two teams — “red” and “white” and then for a week would engage in athletic and other contests to build up points for a final victory. I particularly remember the intense discussions around the “bunk,” of how disgusting our opponents were — fellow campers who had been our friends yesterday!
Now I am not saying that the present stand off between Democrats and Republicans is exactly the same as color war. I recognize that there are differences between the parties, and like everyone else I know, I plan to vote for Obama. But I must say that the way in which my progressive and leftist friends are focused on how terrible the Republicans are does remind me of Junior High School. Having been in New York after 9/11 I know what it feels like to be in a panicky environment in which loyalty is everything, and I don’t like it.
What I am talking about is the need to think independently of Obama, even as we vote for him. An example of what I mean is the discussion of his now-famous remark about who built America. The Republicans made “We built it” the slogan for their first night, and the New York Times took them up on it, calling Obama’s remark “poorly phrased” and “deliberately taken out of context.” According to the Times, “President Obama was making the obvious point that all businesses rely to some extent on the work and services of government. But Mr. Romney has twisted it to suggest that Mr. Obama believes all businesses are creatures of the government, and so the convention had to parrot the line.”