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Monday, December 17, 2012

Obama's Empty Pulpit

-- by Tom Phillips

One of my retirement hobbies is drafting speeches for President Obama.  I lie awake composing responses to national crises, and then imagine myself begging and pleading with him to speak up, to rouse the nation, to say and do what needs to be done. 

Surely there are those in Washington who feel the same way, and may even have access to the President, and the skill to compose an effective response to something like Hurricane Sandy, or the slaughter of kindergarten children in Connecticut.  But the President is clearly hesitant to lead his forces into battle, even when he knows he’s right and the nation is behind him.  He did manage to mention climate change in his election night victory speech, and has now solemnly promised to use his power to try to prevent more massacres.  But on both fronts, he has left it to others to talk specifics.  The President has a Bully Pulpit, but it stands empty, week after traumatic week.  At best he is a ghostly presence,  raising hope and offering consolation, but without leading or pointing the way ahead.  
Full disclosure:  I voted for Obama, twice, though I supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries.  But my original reservation about him stands:  that he doesn’t have enough experience, that he doesn’t know enough about politics or life to be the “transformational leader” that his admirers expected him to be.   

It took him four years to learn the most basic principle of bargaining, that you don’t negotiate against yourself.  Finally he has stiffened his back against Republicans who want to preserve tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.  But he seems so mesmerized by the job of not budging on the “fiscal cliff” that he has so far failed to step up to huge, sudden opportunities to lead, on gun control and climate change.   

The president reportedly hopes to go down in history as one of America’s greatest Presidents, and he has even called in presidential historians to advise him on how greatness is achieved.  I don’t know what the scholars have told him, but I hope it would include something about seizing the moment.  Rather than wasting his time ruminating about how to be great, a President needs to take advantage of events, and the emotions they set off, to force a change in the underlying political dynamics, to make politically unpalatable actions seem unavoidable.  The worst possible thing Obama could do is to follow his anti-dramatic instincts, and the advice of nay-saying conservatives, and “let emotions cool off” before acting.   Psychological research shows that emotion is necessary for making decisions, and this is as true of nations as it is of individuals.    

Obama has a couple of opportunities left: a second inaugural, and a State of The Union address in January.   Hurricane Sandy and the slaughter in Newtown will still be open wounds, and Congress could yet be shamed into action, if the president could move the nation to demand it.   If I were writing the speech, he would call for action across the board:  let’s go over the cliff, raise taxes and immediately plough the added revenue back into the economy.  We could create jobs laying the groundwork for a new infrastructure, built to both reduce and withstand global warming.  We could buy back guns from the public, and beat them into plowshares.  Add universal health care and immigration reform, and you have a vision of a new American century.   We’d give it a name, in the tradition of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier.   

But I'm not writing the speech, and I’m not going to frustrate myself with imaginary pleadings.  It’s up to the president to seize this moment, and make of it what he can.   
Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips 


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Border Pong: A Trip to the DMZ

"In Front of Them All"  -- guards at the DMZ
There's something ridiculous about ping-pong, even when it’s played by Olympic athletes; all that skill and training employed in paddling a weightless, worthless plastic ball across a toy tennis court.  At this year’s Gwangju Biennale, visitors were invited to play ping-pong on stainless steel tables in the courtyard, with double dividers for nets, installed by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.   The table tops were polished to a mirror-like sheen, so that players could see themselves and their surroundings as they jumped around, whacking the ball at friends, relatives or strangers across the divide.    

It felt ridiculous, in a fun way.  But it was also a symbol of Korea today – where armies face off across a barrier that divides a homogeneous nation into two hostile camps, trading shots and threats in a game that has no meaning or raison d’etre outside of politics.   Inspired by the exhibit, a few days later we took a bus from Seoul 50 miles to the border, for a guided tour of the DMZ.  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Christie and the KTX

-- by Tom Phillips

Traveling in Korea last week we took a ride on the KTX, the new high-speed rail service that carries more than 100 thousand passengers a day all over South Korea.   We rode from Mokpo at the southern tip of the country to Seoul, nearly 200 miles, in just over three hours.  There were no hitches, no delays, barely a rattle at speeds up to 175 miles an hour.  Best of all it was eminently affordable – less than 40 dollars one-way.  And the service is reliable:  KTX actually offers full refunds for any train that’s more than one hour late.   Naturally, I found myself wondering why we can’t do this in America. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Gangnam Style and Gwangju Biennale: Subversive Art in Korea

By Tom Phillips

Art and protest are inseparable at the Gwangju Biennale, a unique and celebrated arts festival in South Korea.  It commemorates the Gwangju  Uprising of 1980, when students here led a revolt against a military coup.  The uprising ended with a military crackdown and the massacre of hundreds of civilians.  But it did not end the movement for democracy, which culminated in 1997 with the election of the once-imprisoned opposition leader, Kim Dae-Jung. 

The Ninth Biennale now underway in Gwangju is a playful, audience-friendly show that sprawls through five huge galleries and spills out into the courtyard, where passersby are invited to play ping-pong on 14 stainless steel tables with mirror-like surfaces.  The exhibition has many themes, but running through all of them is the subversion of power.  The purpose of art here is to undermine all forms of oppression, and it does this best through the subtle, irresistible force of entertainment. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Occupy Wall Street One Year Later

-- by Tom Phillips

The anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement has come and gone, and I didn’t take part in any of the commemorative protests.  Why not? 
That was last year, and this is this.  The middle-class moderates who were mad enough to take to the streets in 2011, made our points and moved on.   The broad participation in last year’s protests made for a new political dialogue.  No longer is it dangerous for candidates to talk about raising taxes on the rich, or to campaign against the abuses of the financial industry.   

Today’s middle-class protesters are where they ought to be in a democracy:  interested and involved in an election year.  Thanks to Mitt Romney’s “inelegant” remarks and his choice of an Ayn Rand acolyte as a running mate, the campaign has driven home the main point of OWS.   It has exposed the present-day conservative movement for what it’s been from the start – an attempt to roll back 100 years of reform and turn this country into an “ownership society,” where power is equated with wealth.   

We have a long way to go, to claim back the wealth, power and privilege that the "owners" have seized for themselves in the last 30 years.  But I believe the worm has turned.   And it started a year ago with Occupy Wall Street. 
Maybe he saw my sign
                                          Rev. Debra Given at Zuccotti Park, October 2011
Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Road to Dotage 2: or What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Down the Shore
By Tom Phillips

The road to dotage turns out to be strewn with rocks and boulders.  Why should it be different from any other phase of life?   In June, I was in a “continuum of wonder, free from anxiety or regret” to quote my last blog.  But after a month of summer vacation, I returned to find my house infested with a widely dreaded type of bug, and my mind infected with anxiety, regret, anger, bitterness and despair.  After weeks of nearly constant interaction with children, grandchildren, friends and strangers, almost all of them younger, I perceived myself as decrepit, discounted, rejected, ignored, used, used up, useless.   Don’t get me wrong.  I had fun, I relaxed (see photo) it was good to see everyone.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel the erosion of my place in the world. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Road to Dotage

-- By Tom Phillips

What a pleasure it is to run into one’s self in an unlikely place.  A few days ago I was browsing in the Northshire bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, filling time while my wife looked for a gift.   In the psychology section of the second-hand book nook, a title jumped out at me: “The Delights of Growing Old,”[1] with a cover drawing of a rakish, unmistakably Parisian gentleman, nattily attired and puffing a cigarette.   His name was Maurice Goudeket;  I’d never heard of him, but within a day he became something like an alter ego.    

Like Goudeket, I am in my early 70s, a writer and journalist, finally released from the need to seek gainful employment; comfortably retired, healthy, and happily married.   He was a Parisian and I’m a New Yorker, but we live the same way:      

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Protest Gene

-- by Tom Phillips

"Occupy Wall Street" signs 
Readers may have noticed that this blog has no fixed subject.  Its theme is not a particular issue, but rather an attitude of protest against the abuse of power. It has railed against greedy bankers and their conservative cronies, the Israel lobby, Iranian censors, American patrons of the arts, establishments of religion, etc. 

Protesting is nothing new for me. It’s a family tradition, which I learned at my mother’s knee.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Five Broken Cameras

a film by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
at Film Forum, New York

"Five Broken Cameras," a new documentary film from the occupied west bank, is less about the Arab-Israeli conflict than the Heisenberg effect.  That's a concept from physics, that the very act of observing alters the thing being observed.  Film-makers know the effect increases dramatically when the subject is human and the observing is done with a camera.  And when the film is  intended as advocacy or propaganda, the effect goes off the charts. 

Don’t get me wrong:  the Israeli-Arab conflict on the west bank is real, and bloody, and tragic.  And I agree with the film-makers’ protest against Israel’s settlement policy.  But much of what happens in the film is generated not by the conflict itself but the presence of the cameras, including the five of the title.  These are supplied by Israeli peace activists to a Palestinian west bank resident, each camera subsequently shot up or smashed by the Israeli Defense Forces.  The cameraman, Emad Burnat, serves as the narrator of the film, directed by Israeli Guy Davidi. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Jewish Gospels: More Confessions of a Philo-Semite

-- by Tom Phillips

The Jewish Gospels:  The Story of the Jewish Christ
by Daniel Boyarin
The New Press, 2012

As a Presbyterian and a philo-Semite, I have long found myself pained by two common attitudes:  that of Christians who “don’t like” the Old Testament, and Jews who refuse even to look at the New Testament.  The first I can deal with.  It’s not hard to show people that the qualities they suppose to be lacking in the Hebrew scriptures, e.g. mercy and forgiveness, are in fact ubiquitous, all the way back to the Garden of Eden, while conversely, judgment and retribution are not at all absent from the New Testament.   

To the second attitude, I don’t know what to say.  I have sat in silence through so-called Interfaith services where the New Testament was unmentioned and apparently unmentionable.  I have composed replies, but never sent any, to the professor of creative writing who opined in a Jewish publication that the New Testament was “a barnacle on the ark of the Bible.”  But now, mercifully, comes a book by a renowned Jewish scholar, who reads the NT as a profound collection of mostly Jewish writings, written for an audience of Jews and Gentiles at a time when Jewish thought was hugely influential in the ancient world.   For +Daniel Boyarin, professor of Talmudic Culture at the U. of California, Berkeley, today’s Jews ignore the NT only at the cost of cutting themselves off from a vital portion of their own history.  

Conventional wisdom today sees Judaism and Christianity as “two different religions,” which split nearly 2000 years ago over the radical teachings and claims of Jesus, who broke the mold of traditional Judaism and laid the groundwork of a new, universal faith.   In “The Jewish Gospels,” Boyarin tells a very different story – of a Judaism which at least half-expected this very Son of Man, even his death and resurrection, and wrestled with the meaning of his story for more than three centuries.   During that time, he writes, the religious community of Jews was much wider and looser than it is today, including proselytes and philo-Semites, known as “God-fearers.”  And “believers in Jesus of Nazareth were mixed up in various ways with those who didn’t follow him, rather than separated into two well-defined entities that we know today as Judaism and Christianity.”  

As for Jesus himself, Boyarin presents him as a credible candidate for Messiah, in an age full of messianic expectation.   He answered to a complex job description that was widely though not universally accepted among Jews – a divine “Son of Man” who was created in Heaven and sent to earth, as well as an exalted human being who would suffer on earth but then ascend on high.   Christian theology, he argues, is not some heady combination of Greek and Hebrew thought, but completely rooted in Jewish prophecies.   

Thursday, March 1, 2012

This is Not a Masterpiece

-- By Tom Phillips

A video smuggled out of Tehran has reached our shores, the work of Jafar Panahi, a director under a 20-year ban on making movies, who is also facing a 6-year prison term imposed by the Iranian authorities.  His crimes were supporting the “green” movement that protested the Islamic government’s refusal to accept the results of elections in 2009, and something translated as “gloomism” in his earlier films – showing Iranian life in a dark light.  

The video -- titled “This is Not a Film” -- shows a day in the life of a film-maker trying to find a way out of his personal and artistic prison without violating the terms of his sentence. It shows Panahi in his Tehran apartment, eating breakfast, doing household chores, conferring with lawyers and colleagues, and trying to create art by reading a screenplay aloud amidst an imaginary set laid out on the Persian rug in his living room.  The New York Times immediately hailed the video as a “masterpiece,” in a review that called it a “subtle, strange and haunting work of art.”  I didn’t see it that way at all.   To me, it was a documentary of the ultimate punishment power can inflict on art –  snuffing out its life before it ever sees the light. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Diego Rivera in New York

By Tom Phillips

History doesn't repeat itself, as the man said, but it does rhyme.  And so Diego Rivera's Depression-era murals of oppression and revolt, first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1931, pack a double impact in their return to MOMA now, amid the Great Recession and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The mural above is called The Uprising, and depicts a clash between troops and protesters during the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s.   But it made me think of – even feel again – the thud of a student’s body against concrete in Zuccotti Park last December, when police tackled him for jumping a barricade.  Here the barricade is a sword, thrust out at the level of the man’s genitals.  A wife protests, a baby screams. In this crowded scene is all the tension and menace inherent in a popular uprising – people against power, with weapons drawn and the outcome unknown.    

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Confessions of a Philosemite

-- By Tom Phillips

Recently I learned a new word, which made me happy for about fifteen minutes.  The word is Philosemite, meaning someone who admires and appreciates the Jewish people, their religion and culture.  That’s me, I thought.  I have spent most my life among Jews, owe them inestimable debts and would feel lost without their presence.  But I had never come across a term to describe my relation to them. “Philosemite” had a good sound to it, its mixed Greek and Hebrew roots expressing the fascination of an outsider, and the contrast with “anti-Semite” seeming to provide a badge of innocence in a suspicious age. 

However, after a brief Google search I was stunned to find a quote from a neighbor, an English professor whose daughter once played with mine in the West Side Soccer League.  “We must stamp out Philosemitism, wherever it rears its ugly head,” roared Melvin Bukiet in the Jewish newspaper Forward.   Further research revealed that the word has an ugly origin, coined by anti-Semites in 19th-century Germany as a term of derision for those who sympathized with Jews.  And it’s no badge of innocence; many people regard Philosemitism as a cover for anti-Semites, a socially acceptable way for them to express their sick fascination with Jews.    

A joke: Which is preferable – the anti-Semite or the Philosemite? 
             The anti-Semite.  At least he isn’t lying.   

Smacked down from my initial attraction to the word, I eventually decided to accept it anyway and apply it to myself.   I did so because the alternative would be to keep doing what I have learned to do, which is keep my mouth shut and try to pose as someone who has no strong feelings or mixed feelings about Jews or Judaism.  That’s a lie, and I think a common one.  In the long shadow of the Holocaust, complex or ambivalent feelings about Jews or Judaism have become dangerous to acknowledge.  And the chilling effect has extended into the political arena, curbing free discussion around crucial subjects like Zionism, Israel and U.S. foreign policy, areas where free speech is compromised at great risk to all. 

No joke:  Which are more dangerous, feelings that are communicated, or those that are denied?   Dr. Freud had the answer to that.   So the goal of this essay will be to communicate the mind of a Philosemite who isn’t lying.  

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Across the Barricades 2: The Israel Lobby

By Tom Phillips

Last year’s occupiers of Wall Street included protesters against not just the financial and banking lobby, but other powerful interest groups that dominate political life in America.   And the harshest criticism from across the barricades was directed not at people like me denouncing corporate greed, but against a lone fellow with a sign protesting U-S aid to Israel – billions of dollars in annual aid to a modern, prosperous country, far more than anything we give to any of the world’s poor nations.  He was subjected to long, heated lectures from passersby offended by the idea that the U.S should not provide such extraordinary support to its special friend in the Middle East.   I sympathized with him, and told him so, because I’ve been through it.

In fifty years as a journalist, I learned that criticizing Israel is a risky business in America – it can cost you friendships, reputation, career, or political office.  For example, in the current presidential campaign, no candidate including the President has questioned U.S. support for Israel, even as Israel has repeatedly threatened to ignite a disastrous war by attacking Iran’s nuclear program.  They haven’t because to do so would guarantee a storm of protest from one of the most powerful interest groups in America, known as the Israel lobby.

Monday, January 16, 2012

"A Separation:" Iran and Us

-- By Tom Phillips

Even if it’s just Ron Paul, I’m glad there’s one presidential candidate who’s willing to defy conventional wisdom and political orthodoxy, and talk sense about Iran's nuclear program.

Why shouldn’t Iran develop nuclear weapons?   

Paul, in his disarmingly candid way, points out that nuclear weapons earn nations respect.   They also provide protection from enemies, and Iran has two nuclear-armed enemies, Israel and the United States.  Iranians, like Americans and Israelis, understand that nuclear weapons are the best protection available for a state that’s on another state’s hit list.  Nonetheless, the U.S. is currently drawing red lines and threatening war with Iran over the nuclear issue, a war that would be disastrous to U.S. national interests.   Having invaded both of Iran’s Islamic neighbors, and considering the results and the costs, would anyone in his right mind order a third, potentially even bigger war in the region?   Following is a short list of reasons to let Iran be, concluding with a film review, so arts fans please stay with me.  

1.  Iranian nuclear weapons are no threat to the United States.  If Iran were to build a small arsenal of bombs, it would still lack the capacity to deliver them to targets in America, and absolutely no reason ever to do so.  That would be suicide for Iran.

2.   Rather than inflaming regional conflicts, nuclear weapons tend to stabilize them.    For example, Pakistan joined India in the nuclear club in 1998; and the two rivals, who went to war repeatedly in the 20th century, have avoided major conflict in the 21st, even though they have made little progress on the issues that divide them.  It’s as true in the nuclear age as ever – a balance of power promotes peace.   The only time nuclear weapons were used in war was when just one country had them -- which is exactly the situation today in the middle east.

3.   If Israel didn’t want its neighbors to build nuclear weapons, it shouldn’t have built them itself.  It is unreasonable in the extreme for any state to claim a right to a nuclear monopoly, in effect a one-way death threat against its neighbors.  Could the United States have argued that the Soviet Union had no right to build a bomb after World War Two?  Can Israel really argue that it is more peaceful and better-intentioned than its neighbors?   

4.   A nuclear-armed Iran could be contained, just like every other nuclear power.  If we can deal with Pakistan and North Korea, we can certainly deal with Iran.  The U.S. would have to change its tactics from bullying and threats to more conventional diplomacy, but the two nations have many interests in common, e.g. assuring a reliable flow of oil, and countering the strategic dominance of Russia and/or China in Asia  

5.    U.S. policies of confrontation can only strengthen hard-liners and hotheads in Iran, a complex society with a complex government in which many points of view vie for influence. 

Like most Americans, I’ve never been to Iran and have met only a few Iranians over the years.  But recently, I peeked in a window on Iran today.   It’s the award-winning Iranian film“A Separation,” a realistic story without a happy ending.  This is the tangle of Iranian life at the domestic level, two families caught in a complex of deadly disputes, dragging issues of divorce, child care and eventually homicide into a disorderly but ultimately human system of justice.   One family – middle-class – is torn between a wife who wants to take the family abroad to educate their daughter, and a husband who feels bound to stay and take care of a senile, speechless father.   The other family – poor and desperate – is torn between a hot-headed, unemployed father looking for a payoff, and a devout Muslim mother who is afraid to lie for money because she’s afraid God will punish their daughter.  In this story, none of the characters is able to give in; every attempt at reconciliation is dashed.  I won’t give away the unhappy ending, but I will say it made me think of the current standoff between the U-S and Iran, and all the potential victims of mutual intransigence. 

Could it be that director Asghar Farhadi, working under the strict Iranian censorship that has cost other film-makers their careers, has smuggled out an allegory of the current struggles within Iran – hotheads and hard-liners, devout conservative loyalists, disaffected feminists, and a dying traditional society that no longer has a voice?  

Then there is the central character – the husband who refuses to emigrate, or divorce, or cop a plea.  He struck me as an emblem of the Iranian national character:  proud, principled, stubborn, willing to accept and inflict suffering rather than compromise when he feels he is in the right.   Might we have something in common with this fellow?  Gary Sick, an Iran scholar at Columbia University, suggests  we do.  He told The NewYork Times that the current campaign of sanctions, dirty tricks and assassinations is unlikely to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program.  It’s important to turn around and ask how the U.S. would feel if our revenue was being cut off, our scientists were being killed and we were under cyberattack,” Mr. Sick said. “Would we give in, or would we double down? I think we’d fight back, and Iran will, too.”

Unfortunately, while such points can be made freely among university scholars, state and defense department intellectuals, and foreign-policy think tanks, they have not become part of our public debate or the presidential campaign.  Ron Paul is roundly denounced by all rivals including President Obama, who ritually repeat the official line that Iranian nuclear weapons are “unacceptable” and subject to military response.

Why is it that oddball Ron Paul, who has no chance to be the next President, is the only one who dares question this dangerous policy?   The answer has to do with the distorting effect of lobbies on political discourse in the U.S.   There are certain issues which are off-limits in political campaigns, and a realistic discussion of the middle east is prime among them.  It’s also off-limits in much of mainstream journalism, where telling both sides of some stories can invite a storm of protest.    I learned about this in nearly fifty years as a journalist, and will write about it in an upcoming blogpost, hopefully before the next war breaks out.   

-- Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Across the Barricades

By Tom Phillips

In several months of protesting with Occupy Wall Street, at Zuccotti Park, Times Square, Foley Square and Lincoln Center, I got into a number of conversations across the barricades.  As a more or less respectable 70-year-old, with signs in non-vulgar  language, I was an inviting target for curious cops, tourists, and passersby with one question on their minds:  What do you want?? 

“What would make you happy?  What would make you stop?” asked one exasperated cop at Lincoln Center, after complaining about 20-hour shifts on the barricades.

What I want is modest: a return to fairer competition and more equal sharing in the economic sphere, and a defensible set of values.  Protesters of my age have lived nearly 30 percent of this nation’s history, and we have seen sea-changes in the way America behaves, and the way we feel about ourselves as a nation.   Few would idealize the America of the 40s and 50s, with its stains of racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-communist witch hunts.  Still, the prevailing attitude then was one of common hope – that an expanding economy would benefit everyone, that success was to be shared.  Economic powers were roughly balanced – business was big but so was organized labor, strikes were feared and wages rose roughly in proportion to profits.  A progressive tax code with high marginal rates made the rich grumble, but for the most part they paid, out of respect for the “common man” who was seen as the hero of our economic as well as military dominance in the world.  It was a mentality of abundance. 

The U-S economy has continued to expand in the 50 years since my youth, but our mentality of abundance has disappeared.   I tried to tell the cop at the barricade that what I want would be good for him as well, as a member of the 99 percent.   I said we were basically in the same boat – like him, I had had a secure job with a strong union, good benefits, and a decent retirement.   But I didn’t want to live in a country that was denying those things to more and more of its people, including my own children and grandchildren.   The cop agreed that we were in the same boat, but his attitude was different:  “We can’t just give that to everybody, can we?  We can’t afford it.”   To him, his middle-class lifestyle was something to be defended against others’ claims.   We’re in the same boat, all right, but the only way we can stay in it is to keep others from climbing aboard.   Even as our national wealth has multiplied, America’s mentality of abundance has been replaced by one of scarcity and fear. 

What happened is NOT explained by a decline in the U-S economy; there has been no such thing.  Per capita GDP has more than doubled since 1960, but wages have risen less than half that (and hardly at all since the 1970s), while stock values have multiplied fourteenfold.  The bottom line is that the vast majority of increased wealth has gone to employers and investors.   That is due not to economics but politics:  a series of power grabs by the wealthiest Americans that deprived the rest of us of our share, and left us believing there’s not enough to go around.  

I watched it unfold and wrote about it as a journalist for nearly 50 years.   The 1960s opened with a surge of optimism.  When John F. Kennedy delivered his  inaugural speech -- “ask what you can do for your country” – America seemed to be on the verge of unparalleled greatness, and it was felt to be a communal effort, harking back to the general mobilization that won World War Two.   But as everyone knows, our age of unparalleled greatness crashed and burned in Vietnam, taking down with it Lyndon Johnson’s unpaid-for vision of a Great Society.  The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 began a conservative backlash that stumbled through the 1970s, but found its transformational leader in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. 

The Reagan revolution, for all its economic benefits, undermined our sense of common purpose.  Reaganomics – that heady combination of deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, and a back of the hand for labor -  made it suddenly cool to take as much as you could for yourself, and never mind anyone else.  Corporations and individuals alike took the message to heart; the goal now was not just to make but to “maximize” profits, which meant that no amount of wealth was ever enough.  Our heroes were no longer common people but super-rich entrepreneurs and investors, as well as overpaid athletes and entertainers.  Rather than members of a winning team, these were seen as individuals who made their own rules, who left their peers and colleagues in the dust. 

Not everyone was comfortable with the new doctrine.  Accepting the Republican nomination in 1988, George H.W. Bush tried to moderate the free-market euphoria, calling timidly for a “kinder, gentler America.”  But that was drowned out in the celebration over the collapse of communism in 1989.  That seemed to seal the case for individual careerism, against any kind of collectivist thinking. 

The revolution stumbled again in the 1990s, as Ross Perot split the conservative majority and gave the White House to the Democrats.  But it didn’t stop, as the policies of the Clinton years made clear:  expanding global free trade, curtailing welfare at home, and deregulating banks with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999.  The revolution reached its zenith in 2001 with the Bush tax cuts, which undermined the government’s ability to pay for itself, while accelerating the flow of wealth to the top one percent.   All this paved the way for the economic collapse of 2008 and the “great recession” that brought us to Zuccotti Park and this winter of discontent. 

So what is to be done?   Right now, it’s too cold for mass demonstrations, and camping out is only for the foolhardy.  Occupy Wall Street made its point and the real distinction between the one percent and the ninety-nine is widely accepted, as is the fact that growing inequality is bad for the economy as well as the social fabric.  

It was politics that got us into this mess, and politics will get us out.  But politics begins with the people.  Our President, the great compromiser for most of his first term, now seems to get the idea that there’s a bold movement out there that can re-elect him, if he’s squarely on the side of the public and not the oligarchies.  We need to hold him accountable if he wins.  And we need to do that at every level and branch of government.   We need to raise a new generation of political leaders who understand that we elect them to serve our interests, not sell us out. 

This is not going to be quick or easy.  It took thirty years for the right wing to establish its chokehold on American democracy, and it may take thirty years to pry every one of its fingers loose.  But the tide has turned. 

On New Year’s Eve, my wife and I went back to Zuccotti Park hoping to celebrate the New Year with our fellow protesters.  Unfortunately, most of the other celebrants were kids looking to pick a fight with the cops, who were glad to oblige.   Our conclusion:  there are more important things to do in 2012.   There’s no point in fighting with the cops; better to talk to them across the barricades, and convince them that what they too need is a government that looks out first for the interests of their families, not banks and corporations.  This kind of voter may indeed be the key to election 2012:  the middle and working-class whites who became Republicans in the Reagan years, and who have been ill-served by the GOP ever since. 

I don’t know how much progress I made with my blue-shirted friend at Lincoln Center.  He was suddenly called away to defend another part of the plaza against invading protesters.   His last words  were "I'll be back," but I never saw him again.  If you see him, whether across the barricades, in a donut shop, or watching the Super Bowl, talk to him.  

Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips