Tuesday, August 20, 2019

People’s Republic: #6 This Too Will Pass

Every day we get more examples showing how nothing is certain and almost everything is in flux. Trump may be a master con artist, but harsh realities are piling up. This episode looks at culture war and progressive values, Bernie Sanders’ campaign chest, lost horizons at Pacifica Radio and Burlington College, F-35 resistance, and learning to live with the unexpected. Theme music by Dave Lippman. 

Nothing lasts forever. It’s a simple idea, but very often true. Like experts are saying these days about the so-called good economic times: They won’t last. It may even apply to the American Dream. Is it over yet? Donald Trump said so in 2016, part of his call to scare the hell out of white America. And only he could revive it, remember that? But it hasn’t gone very well so far. 

Listen to "#6 This Too Will Pass" on Spreaker.

Take this statistic from CBS News just the other day — CEOs rake in 940 percent more than they did 40 years ago. Meanwhile the average workers earn 12 percent more. This news, like so much else, just popped up on my phone without warning — like a creepy un-birthday message. The Bummer of the day.  

Trump may be a master con artist, but the harsh realities are piling up, even for those living in the Trump-Fox bubble. 

Every day we get more examples showing how nothing is certain and almost everything is in flux. Even Bernie Sanders status as the top Democratic candidate fundraiser. Four years ago Bernie built an unrivaled progressive war chest with small donations. This time two other candidates beat him in fundraising for the last quarter. Of course, the others leaned on high dollar donors and Bernie still has more individual donations than any other candidate. But... even though the pace of donations picked up in August, the average Sanders donation has dropped — from the old rallying cry -$27 — down to $16. Someone needs new signs.

One more example of change as the only certainty — the F-35s, 18 of which are on their way to the Burlington area — despite a City Council resolution, in a unanimous vote, opposing any nuclear weapons delivery systems at the airport. A similar resolution has been passed by the Vermont state senate.

The local resolution, written by four Progressives on the City Council, calls on Mayor Weinberger, Gov. Scott, and Vermont’s congressional delegation to let the U.S. Department of Defense know that Burlington definitely doesn’t want any nuclear weapons delivery system at the Vermont Air National Guard Base. 

Well, Who would? But this does not mean that Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy and Peter Welch will do or say anything about it. And it does not actually represent total opposition to the jets. Any victory lap would be premature. The Pentagon still won’t talk about what their warplanes carry, and neither lawsuits nor a public referendum have forced the military or the political establishment to reconsider. 

But things will change in time. It took decades to force the closure of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant  The F-35 related resolution passed in the Vermont Senate, likely to be taken up in the House next year, included testimony from a retired Air National Guard lieutenant colonel. He told a Senate committee that aircraft based in Vermont in the past had carried nuclear weapons! And neither the Air Force nor Defense Department told state officials. 

The resolution also mentioned Vermonters’ long history of opposition to nuclear weapons, dating back to Town Meeting Day in 1982 when 88 percent of 180 cities and towns approved a nuclear freeze between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

In addition, the jet’s problems have not been solved. According to documents obtained by Defense News, the F-35 continues to be a boondoggle, full of flaws and glitches that, if left unfixed, can create risks to pilot safety — and any community where they are based — and they also call into question the fighter jet’s real capabilities.

Perhaps even more important, the opposition in Vermont has not peaked. Hundreds turned out for a recent protest across the road from the airport. So, the jets may start to land, but the opposition will continue to grow. As I said, nothing lasts forever. 

Return of the Culture War

Earlier this summer, I attended the opening of Fields of Change, an exhibit at the Bennington Museum featuring images, artifacts and stories of the 1960s, with a focus on southern Vermont. Since I lived there 50 years ago, and worked as a reporter and photographer for the local daily paper, some of my pictures and experiences made it into the exhibit.

And the story they tell is about observing the beginning of a culture war in that small Vermont community. I some ways, it was a perfect place to live — for the artists who had been moving there for decades, for the local citizens who had a decent job. But under the surface their was conflict and inequality — between what I came to view as middle class modernists and the tradition-bound, conservative working class. 

One of the first eruptions involved the poster for a high school production of Brecht on Brecht. It was banned, and the play was only the first flashpoint. Now the poster on display at the museum, part of the story about how a fight over progressive education led to a cultural counter-revolution.

There are also photos and memorabilia from alternative businesses we started during those heady times, and the places where we tried to live our own American Dream. But it was a fragile paradise and, like most memorable, vivid times, it could not last forever. But today, in the midst of another culture war, at least we can begin to better understand what happened back then, as real life turns into history.

The exhibit — Fields of Change: 1960s Vermont — runs until November 3 in Bennington, Vermont. It’s still only four hours from New York City.

Schools Without Walls

The first time I heard the phrase “a school without walls” was in 1973, shortly after the launch of the Vermont Institute for Community Involvement. Or VICI, as we called it then. Later it was renamed Burlington College.

The basic idea was that instead of accumulating physical assets — bricks and mortar was the phrase — a school could instead mainly use existing spaces, thus contributing to the economy, fostering exchange and community. Along with that came the idea that college students could design their own course of studies, within a general discipline, and that their progress could be evaluated rather than graded.

It was a great vision of progressive education, and it worked. Hundreds of students graduated from BC over the next 44 years. But the desire to grow is seductive. The college never had more than about 250 students. And after a while they attended classes mainly at the college’s modest building in Burlington’s Old North End. 

But in 2010, under the leadership of Jane Sanders, the Board of Trustees decided to go big and buy 33 acres of land and buildings owned by the Catholic Diocese. It was a risky move, and it didn’t work. I won’t go into the details now, let’s just say “mistakes were made.” And yes, we are talking about Bernie Sanders’ wife. 

But the point is that, in forgetting its own history, the college lost its way. It closed in 2016. But some people say they want to bring something like it back.

The attempted revival is called the Vermont Institute for Civic and International Involvement. That’s VICI with an extra I. Or maybe VIC 2. Anyway, its first official step is a series of Issues Forums, in Burlington throughout the Fall. The topics include downtown development, Burlington Telecom, privatization, open spaces, the F-35s and a forum called “Homeless in Paradise: The Housing Crisis in One of the Most Livable Cities in the USA, Burlington.”

At first I thought it was a political platform. And in a way it is. The purpose of this project is pretty far from the original VICI vision, which focused on diversity, self-design and self-direction. In fact, the brochure specifically states that the idea developed in response to “a crisis in politics.” So, here is a new form of education. Designed to counter corporate models, it suggests an openly ideological alternative, one that welcomes those who already think alike — but may wall off the rest. 

The new VICI won’t have any buildings for now, instead using the Old North Community Center. Still, those aren’t the only walls to worry about.

Meltdown on Planet Pacifica

In 2006 I became Executive Director of Pacifica radio, the listener-sponsored network founded in 1949. It’s a progressive media enterprise with a legendary history and a great founding vision of what media can be. But by the time I arrived it had been through almost a decade of internal struggle. Worried about a possible corporate take over, staff, board and volunteers at the five owned stations fought back, in court, in the studios and on the streets, and eventually created a new, more democratic structure.

But that didn’t prevent factions from forming at various stations, contested board elections and charges that the process was unfair — even rigged. When I became CEO, the organization was battle-weary, but recovering. Its next two years would be more peaceful and financially positive than most. We launched new shows and settled old lawsuits. But the factions and tribalism did not go away.

After two years, rather than become the center of yet another power struggle, I stepped aside to make way for another chief executive, someone who had been fired years before. But she did not appreciate the new governance structure and left within a year. And one of her successors resorted to barricading herself in the national office rather than accept a replacement.

It’s been a period of retrenchment, and Pacifica stations have lost some ground in an increasingly diverse, digitally-driven audio world. At the start of the Iraq war, being a radio voice of opposition helped Pacifica to expand its audience and revenues. But Trump has so many enemies that it’s harder to stand out. Nevertheless, you might expect that the danger of Trumpian fascism would bring people together.

Think again. Last September a new CEO was hired after a lengthy search. But within nine months Maxie Jackson was forced out. That was in July. Board Chairman Grace Aaron became CEO, a job some say she would like to keep. But a new chief had actually been lined up, in secret. Finally, the board had to issue an announcement. And the new man, John Carlo Vernile, promised to focus on “activity that engages audiences, expands opportunities for financial support and stabilizes national operations.”

Who is Pacifica’s new leader? A former Sony Music and EMI executive, basically a salesman and promoter who was a premiums vendor for a Pacifica station. Unfortunately, he brings no experience in managing a democratic rather than a corporate enterprise. So good luck with that.

One crisis he will face is WBAI, once a great station but long in debt and listener freefall. According long-time supporter Steve Brown, a faction of WBAI’s local board, together with some national board members, wants to lease the station to a corporate division of Time Warner. The goal, ostensibly, is to “stabilize” the station. Brown claims the move will destroy it. So the fighting continues. 

Yes, nothing lasts forever. Even the vision of what it means to be a progressive. But that’s an argument for the future. Right now I think we should focus on winning back the country, the world and the narrative from the biggest, longest con in modern political history. In that context, the fact that nothing lasts forever is good news.

(From the August 19, 2019 podcast) 

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The People’s Republic # 4: Inconvenient News

In this podcast, Greg looks into the state of America’s breakdown, the problem of Kentucky, rating Mueller’s performance, Vermont and the F-35s, Bernie Sanders and Cardi B, reviewing the Democratic Debate, and how Donald Trump and Sarah Palin paved the way for a new Dark Age.
Listen to "People’s Republic #4: Inconvenient News" on Spreaker.

Donald Trump officially launched his 2020 re-election campaign in July with a firehose of racist tweets and public statements -- about Democrats, women, blacks, American cities, you name it. Living in Baltimore, he says, is like living in Hell. How presidential, running down your own communities while projecting like a madman.

And Kentucky’s junior Senator Rand Paul piled on, offering to buy Rep. Ilhan Omar a ticket to Somalia so she will “appreciate America more.”  That’s some world class racist enabling. 

Kentucky’s other senator is known around the capital these days as Moscow Mitch. That’s Majority leader McConnell, a tested political tool who personally blocked legislation to protect US elections from future foreign interference. Sounds like he knows something the rest of us don’t. 

Mitch has done almost as much damage to congress as Trump has done to the presidency. Forget Kansas. What’s the matter with Kentucky?

On the left, there was disappointment with the recent congressional appearances of Robert Mueller. As a performance, it did leave much to be desired. Robert De Diro, the actor who has played Mueller on Saturday Night Live, provided some notes:

“...let’s just say my approach to the part would have been different. Mueller chose to play himself as a calm, confident, dignified public servant... That's a valid acting choice, don't get me wrong.” 

But De Niro continued: “More of a method actor, I would have channeled my inner rage at the years of Donald Trump's illegal and immoral acts, and I would have been more in touch with my fury after two years of Trump and his stooges accusing me of running a witch hunt. I would have dropped the unruffled exterior and been more, let's say, expansive in my response." 

So, Mueller might have said... “Hey, Mr. President, are you talking about me? I’m the only one in the hearing room. There’s no one else around.”

Closer to reality, at least three people were shot down last weekend at the annual Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California near San Jose. So, bottom line: the moral, political and psychic breakdown of America continues.


Hundreds of Vermonters protested against immigration detentions and conditions outside of the Department of Homeland Security’s Law Enforcement Support Center in Williston. The demonstration ended with a road block and 19 arrests.

On the other hand, get ready Vermont. Eighteen F-35s are arriving very soon. And officials from Burlington, Winooski and South Burlington are now arguing about who should foot the bill for the cost of mitigating noise problems that face more than 2,600 homes.

Yet anyone who thinks this fight is over, that the arrival of the jets makes it a dead issue, has forgotten the decades of opposition to Vermont Yankee. For years most politicians either ignored the nuclear plant’s problems or made pathetic excuses. Now, finally, it is permanently shut down. Yet we still don’t know all the health damage it inflicted.

The arrival of the jets — the biggest waste of money in Pentagon history — will only make the fight in Vermont more urgent. Keep in mind: an advisory vote in 2018 told the City Council in Burlington to ask federal officials to cancel the basing decision. The outcome of that referendum: 6,482 voted for cancelation, over the 5,237 voters who seem to think the jets are an attractive, or at least patriotic, addition to the Vermont land and soundscape. 

That’s over 6,000 vote that Democrats and Republicans can no longer count on in future local and state elections.

Still, the state of Progressive politics in Vermont is in flux. Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman knows it, and state government’s top elected Progressive is convening a State Committee Meeting of the Progressive Party on August 18 — at his farm in Hinesburg. They’ll start with a potluck picnic, then discuss party organizing. Either he has overflow parking, or doesn’t expect that big a turnout. 

A recent attempt to create a new unity movement for Burlington progressives didn’t go that well. Less than a dozen people showed up when the group was convened. The response to recent Green Party organizing didn’t go any better. Howie Hawkins, a possible Green Party candidate for president in 2020, recently visited the area. Organizers hope to hold enough local caucuses to get the Party on the Vermont ballot next year. So far the response has been... underwhelming.  


Just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean the party and the liberal press aren’t out to get him. They definitely are. Twisted poll results, repeated distortion of what Medicare for All would actually mean. On MSNBC Casey Hunt and others talk about “taking away private insurance” rather than what would actually happen — replacing and improving it. The difference sounds semantic, but it’s also essential.

Another specious argument is that what America really wants is Joe Biden, a candidate with even more baggage than Hillary Clinton. 

Rolling Stone currently puts Bernie in fourth place, and argues that, although his proposals set the table for 2020, he no longer has the left lane to himself. But it also says that Elizabeth Warren “is a capitalist at heart, having spent a career trying to make the system work for working people.” So, the left has been conveniently re-defined as fundamentally reformist. Yet making the system work is not really Warren’s message.

But forget about basic change. Or consistency. That’s why Kamala Harris can say she supports Bernie’s Medicare for All plan but simultaneously propose a muddled middle way that protects private insurance.  The real message is as simple as ABB - Anybody But Bernie.

Apparently, Sanders is Vietnam for moderates. His rise is so threatening to the neo-liberal establishment that they may be ready to destroy the Democratic party in order to save it. 

Also in Bernie news... The candidate teamed up recently with rapper Cardi B to film a presidential campaign video aimed at young voters. In an interview before the shoot, Bernie explained:

"The future of America depends on young people. They are voting in large numbers, but not large enough numbers." 

He and Cardi B talked about canceling student debt, climate change and raising the minimum wage. The video was filmed at the Ten Nail Bar, a local nail salon owned by two black women. Afterward, the performer thanked the candidate on Instagram.


Night One of the latest Democratic debates began with loaded questions from the media like — Will you raise taxes to create Medicare for all? And my favorite: Is Senator Sanders too extreme to be the Democratic nominee? Not to mention false charges, like Medicare for All means “taking away” health care from people who have private insurance. That’s playing the fear card. But Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren defended the concept effectively against a chorus of desperate opportunists. 

One of the biggest surprises was seeing CNN push Republican talking points that challenge the feasibility of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Several candidates shilled for the for-profit insurance companies that are ripping people off and pushing them into debt.

At times I thought some Republicans had crashed the debate.

I say they were desperate because they struggled to defend private health care without saying one good word about it. On the other hand, the first 45 minutes was devoted to the health care debate.

The dynamic was basically the same on every issue — an attempt to rule out the progressive agenda — which only Sanders, Warren and Marianne Williamson defended — by a group of white bread candidates it was sometimes hard to tell apart.

Things that didn’t come up — Robert Mueller and impeachment.

On Night Two... Watching Joe Biden struggle to put complete sentences together made me worry. Not about him. But there must be millions of deluded Biden Democrats across the country who so fear progressive change, socialism, pushy women, or any kind of change — that they’d let this nice old man be slaughtered in public. Uncle Joe belongs on a Game Show, not a debate stage with Trump. 

But somehow I don’t see either happening. If he does somehow get nominated for president, I suspect it will seriously disrupt the party long before Trump’s resounding re-election. 

As for the rest, DeBlasio was often right, but also scary.... and too tall for this ride.

Michael Bennett was sympathetic... but seemed to have wandered into the wrong debate. 

Tulsi Gabbard was compelling, eloquent, right on the issues. Almost a TV fantasy choice. She even nailed Kamala Harris. Unfortunately, she’s not likely to be president, at least not yet. Meanwhile, someone give her a show. Tulsi 2024.

Andrew Yang is one of those guys with unique ideas that might work — but could also cause a rip in the space time continuum. On the other hand, we haven’t tried a nerd president yet.

Cory Booker reminds me of a super hero, a Captain Amazing type ready to leap into every fight. In other words, a candidate for burn out or some other disaster. In the debate, though, he did school Uncle Joe.

Kirsten Gillibrand is facile and quick, but very intense and seems to want to fire everyone. She’s very into... herself. You want to give her a lot of space. 

Kamala Harris can prosecute any case, but she doesn’t inspire and sends the vibe that it’s ultimately all about her. And like DeBlasio, she’s a little scary.

Julian Castro is dignified and smart, but also like a Latino Obama. I can’t help thinking, been there, done that.
Who did I miss? Oh, Jay Inslee, the climate guy. He wants to make it issue number one, a wise idea. And he’s a governor with a solid record. Unfortunately, he’s hard to tell apart from the other white guys running.

Who won the debates? Overall, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and, just because he survived, Joe Biden. Who lost? Kamala Harris, CNN, and Democratic Party moderates.

At times, watching those debates, I sometimes almost thought we’re still heading for a happy ending. Almost.

Let’s take a hard look at the reality of Donald Trump — especially how he fooled the elites. My first question about that is: Why is anyone surprised?

Nancy Pelosi says that once upon a time Trump could be gracious. Rappers thought he was cool and wrote songs about him. Apparently, they and millions more — especially those who enjoy rumbling shoulders in high kitsch circles —were bamboozled by a sociopath. 

How did we get here? There are many theories. To consider a few, let’s take a short trip down memory lane... to the beginning of an era in which facts have less value. Although many people blame Trump — as they once blamed the Bush administration — the irresponsibility of mass media have also played a part.

Consider the case of Sarah Palin — the coal mine canary who became a right right barracuda and a harbinger of our post-truth times. The key moment may have been another debate night, when Palin faced Joe Biden in 2008.

Her real message that evening was an extreme idea: facts really don’t matter anymore. Did she know she was so often mistaken? It’s difficult to know and doesn’t really matter. Like Donald, Sarah was not fond of questions — and preferred to answer her own.  And her performance also showed that, for some politicians, talking to the base, preferably without what they called a “media filter,” was the key to constructing their own reality bubble.

By my count, Palin uttered 23 lies or misstatements on 15 topics in just 90 minutes. And she only got to talk half the time. Did the media fact-check her? Not a bit. 

How did she do it? A few examples. She mis-characterized Obama’s proposed health plan, claiming it would be “government-run.” She repeated what the Associated Press did call the “highly misleading” attack that Obama opposed funding for the troops. 

She claimed,  “I don’t want to argue about the causes” of global warming. Yet she had already announced that she didn’t believe it was man-made. Even more brazen, she claimed that McCain “doesn't tell one thing to one group and then turn around and tell something else to another group.” That’s exactly what he did on immigration. 

Uncle Joe Biden’s performance certainly wasn’t misstatement-free. But Palin set some sort of record for TV lying, one that probably wasn’t broken until Trump.

Of course, her actual job had little to do with what she knew — or didn’t know.  She was a political “barracuda,” one that McCain had set loose, a blunt fighting tool that attacked by any means necessary. And, as she told us herself, she read anything people put in front of her.

That was just the beginning. Truth? Facts? For Palin, and eventually Trump, they are completely irrelevant.

Timothy Snyder makes our problem painfully clear In The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder describes the last six years as a period of shattering change that has led Russia, America and parts of Europe into what he calls “schizofascism.” In Trump’s case, it may turn out to be “sado-populism.” 

A core idea is the shift — with strategic nudges by the Putin’s oligarch gang — from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity. Inevitability politicians say that specifics of the past are irrelevant, merely grist for future progress; Eternity politicians instead see endless cycles of threat, victimhood, and restoration, and have a penchant for supressing facts, dismissing reality, and creating political fiction.

Eternity. That’s a long time ... and bound to be another false prophecy from the far-right bubble. But for now, if we are in some form of involuntary bondage, at the mercy of a presidential sadist, what are the safe words?

Here are a few... Courage (not just strength), Rights (not just access), and Liberation  (not just peace). 

At the moment, however, it looks like we’re entering a new, high tech Dark Age. What can we do? Keep fighting and prepare — with more elections, not less; more investigations, more science, more alternatives, more questions, everything at our disposal to refute the logic of resentment and denial.

Will we  make it? Possibly. But if the current polarization goes much further, we’re heading for a race war, one as serious and divisive as the Civil War — and some serious, very inconvenient karma down the line. 

(Edited from the August 1, 2019 podcast)