The Moral Imperative to Change "The System"
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
December 9, 2008
Below are four suggestions for what ordinary citizens can do in our current
and growing economic/political /social crisis. But first let's place what
follows in some historical context.
Back in the day -- for me the decade-and-a-half known as "The Sixties" -- we
dissenters railed against the corrupt "System." It seemed clear to all of us
in "The Movement" that all the institutions that affected our lives --
government, academia, business, religion, the political parties, mass media,
et al. -- were rotten to the core, concerned mainly with money and power and
not with the consequences of their policies and behaviors on ordinary
I know it seems crazy today, but we Movement-activist types really did
believe back then that we were riding the wave of history that would sweep
away all the old rotten foundations and institutions of the decadent System
all across the globe. We radicals (going to "the root") felt we were laying
the new foundations, creating the new counter-cultural institutions that
would lead to more peaceful, productive, happy societies.
Our job as young "revolutionaries," we believed, was to kick out the traces
propping up the System's dry-rotted pillars and posts, so we could start the
immediate reconstruction processes.
In our na´vetÚ, it hardly registered to many of us that maybe the System
wasn't as weak as we supposed and might not appreciate our efforts to get
rid of those power-supports. We didn't fully anticipate that the ruling
forces were likely to strike back, successfully, with all the fearful, angry
instruments at their command in order to hold onto their preferred positions
in the economic/social pecking order; these instruments included police
brutality and even murder of selected radical leaders, e.g. African-American
hero Fred Hampton in Chicago.
THE GAINS OF "THE SIXTIES"
Even given the massive conservative backlash that did come and even aware of
the self-righteous mistakes we had made, many of us still feel good about
the limited but very real successes in our amateurish attempt at
cultural/political revolution: helping stop the immoral war in Vietnam,
provoking investigations into widespread governmental and corporate and
police corruption and brutality, creating alternative institutions including
media sources for news and opinion, providing avenues for minorities and
women to create their own power movements, and helping bring down the
despised criminal in the White House, Richard Nixon.
Looking back on the scene now, it seems clear that the longest-lasting
influence of the multi-splintered "Movement" was the tone of idealism and
outrage and spontaneity and fun that influenced an entire generation of
young people, and beyond.
So, other than nostalgia, why am I writing about an era that flourished
decades ago? I think you know the answer: The System today in many ways is
similarly corrupt and decadent and in need of a major shakeup. And, as in
"The Sixties," those who rule the System are not going to simply abandon
their perqs and power; it is up to us ordinary citizens to point out the
corruption and malfeasance and to do something transformational with that
CHANGE WINDOW IS OPEN NOW
With the massive defeat of the conservative Republicans in the November
election and the installation into the White House of a liberal-leaning
centrist President, there finally might be a window of opportunity when
popular political pressure could actually make a difference. We don't know
how long this window will be open to fresh air, so it's important that we
get our act together ASAP and move with solidarity to effect as much vital
social change as we can.
Sometimes, we might be able to do this in concert with President Obama and
the Democratic majority in Congress, but because the hyper-cautious (and at
times complicit) Democrats are often part of the problem, we may have to
raise a mighty voice to get our point of view across in a Washington that is
all too prone to wishy-washy compromise, a helleva lot of "spin," and lack
of genuine progress for ordinary middle-class and poor citizens.
You may question my assumption that the System now is reminiscent of the
corrupt System that was facing me and my contemporaries back in "The
Sixties." Yes, our society has made great progress in some areas. But in
others, it has regressed mightily. So, before moving on to plans for
implementation, let's take a look at a few of the various parallels from the
1. MISADVENTURING ABROAD
The U.S., no matter whether under Democrats or Republicans, is still prone
to imperialist adventurism abroad. The Democrats tend to run a "soft
imperialism" program, making sure the U.S. gets its way through firm
diplomacy and economics, with threats of something harsher always looming in
the background. The Republicans, especially during the CheneyBush reign of
error, tended deliberately and openly to rush to the use of violence,
warfare, torture and threats as a club: Accept our way or prepare for some
good old-fashioned shock&awe.
The CheneyBush method is derived out of a belief that America is
exceptionally beloved by God and charged to bring "democracy" and "free
markets" to the populations of the world, whether they want it or not. The
unexpected result of this mode of operation has been to demonstrate that
hi-tech superpowers are limited in effectively exercising their strength
against nationalistic, religiously-influenced, guerrilla-style opposition.
Ignoring this fact and staying-the-course of various invasions and
occupations has brought the U.S. into worldwide disrepute, devoid of moral
authority (especially given its widespread use of torture), and stretching
our military way too thin across the globe.
Obama is much more willing to use diplomacy and to build up solid alliances,
but he has indicated that he, too, has adopted much of the neo-conservative
militarist mindset about American exceptionalism and our supposed
responsibility to police the planet.
In short, not all that much has changed from the Vietnam War-era when the
U.S. couldn't figure out how or whether to disengage from trying to run
other nations' business, and when it conducted an immoral war that wound up
killing millions abroad and fomenting a political/generational civil war at
home over the wisdom and costs of that misadventure.
Our illegal, immoral attack on and occupation of Iraq is similarly the
crucible for a generation opposed to this unnecessary, self-defeating war, a
war despised by two-thirds of the American people. Despite Obama's announced
16-months-and-out plan, it's not clear how, or when, he will remove the
majority of the troops, and whether, even if they go, many of those American
troops will simply move one border over to the quagmire in Afghanistan
and/or re-deploy to other bases in the Greater Middle East. In fact, Obama
has hinted that events on the ground in Iraq might prolong the occupation in
2. A RESTRICTED, CORRUPT MASS-MEDIA
The corporate mass-media in newspapers, TV networks and cable, radio talk
shows, etc. are even more prone these days to serve as little more than
stenographers for governmental propaganda and spin; their tendency is to
support conservative values and politicians in their editorials and choices
of stories to run and highlight. (Olbermann and Maddow are exceptions to the
There are few mainstream investigative reporters and editors willing to take
on the powers-that-be. Example: the New York Times waited until after the
2004 elections to expose the Bush Administration's illegal domestic-spying
operation, a story they had ready to go for a full year before that. Those
few mainstream reporters who do color outside the acceptable lines run the
risk of being fired or disciplined or being forced to resign. Most obvious
examples: Dan Rather forced out at "60 Minutes" for pushing a story about
Dubya's questionable service at the Texas Air National Guard during the
Vietnam War, or war correspondent Chris Hedges having to leave the New York
Times after speaking publicly about the truth of U.S. policy abroad.
If citizens are to exercise proper oversight of their government, they need
accurate information. These days, even more than in "The Sixties," citizens
have to consciously search out alternative sources beyond the corporate
mass-media to get a clearer fix on what's really going on: For reliable
information, the curious must look to the foreign media, to the handful of
trustworthy investigative journalists in the mainstream U.S. press, to the
satirists and comedians, and, most importantly, to unencumbered political
analysis on the internet.
3. DEMS' TIMIDITY & COMPLICITY
There are some definite exceptions, but by and large politicians in
Washington, as always, seem devoted to watching out for their own interests
and covering each others' backs. Maybe that's why they seem tone-deaf to
what's really agitating their constituents outside the D.C. Beltway.
Lobbyists hired by the powerful interests whose money rules in the nation's
capital have an inordinate influence on legislation, much more than they had
in the Vietnam era. One shouldn't expect this system to change much in the
foreseeable future. Politicians feel the need to suck on the lobbyists' teat
because they need the money for their permanent election cycles. Public
financing of those political campaigns, which might reduce the influence of
special-interest money, appears to be dead in the water.
One would hope that now that the Democrats have increased their majorities
in the House and Senate that they would be in the forefront of major reform.
But the Democrats haven't demonstrated much interest in any drastic
alterations of how campaigns are financed, in fixing our compromised and
corrupted voting system, in punishing criminal acts and war crimes of high
officials by ordering impeachment hearings, in cutting off financing for the
occupation of Iraq, in restoring Constitutional protections decimated during
the past eight years of Republican rule in the White House, etc. etc.
Certainly the Congressional Democrats, and President Obama, will serve
average Americans better than when CheneyBush ruled the Executive Branch.
But the Democratic leaders, Pelosi and Reid, on key issues tend to be
overly-cautious accommodationists rather than true fighters for significant
I'm prepared to be delighted by being proven wrong, but it appears that the
"change" promised by Obama and the Democrats may be measured in small,
incremental doses in the next four years, thus protecting the ongoing
System, when what is required is a massive overhaul and reform.
Just look at the humongous bailout of the financial system by the federal
government. We're heading fast toward a major '30s-like Great Depression,
with a half-million job-holders losing their positions each month, and an
economy that could well grind to a disastrous near-halt as more businesses
go belly-up. Billions of dollars are passed out here and there to financial
institutions to stabilize the capitalist System, but there is no effective
oversight in place to verify where all that largesse is going. We know that
precious little of it is filtering down to ordinary American homeowners
trying to pay their mortgages, workers laid off, small-business owners
forced into bankruptcy, etc.
4. ACCOUNTABILITY "OFF THE TABLE"
And, most galling of all for hard-pressed American citizens watching their
stock portfolios and IRAs and pensions shrink daily, there is rarely any
accountability for those who got us into the various disasters:
Congress' obscene deregulation of the financial institutions with no
oversight provided. The war-of-choice and occupation in Iraq. The
authorization and sanctioning of torture as official United States policy by
the highest officials at the White House and Pentagon. The turning of our
beloved Constitution into little more than a "quaint" scrap of paper. The
saddling of the middle-class and poor (and their children and grandchildren)
with massive debt by financially bailing-out Wall Street but giving ordinary
citizens, including auto workers and other blue-collar working stiffs,
little more than crumbs of social services and tax relief in return.
It appears to be the same ol' same 'ol: rescue the rich and powerful --
those "too big to fail," those "too important to fail." One would think that
the Democrats, the party of the middle-class, would use their rare
opportunity to alter the priorities, to enact major reform, to break from
the corrupt politics of the past, to bring criminal charges against the
malefactors to keep future officeholders and CEOs from feeling they can get
away with anything.
But there is no real movement for impeachment, for war-crimes prosecutions,
for CEO demotions or firings, etc. Instead, those who created the messes are
left in place or are given enormous "golden parachutes," pardons are
granted, laws are changed to cover the asses of the miscreants in charge.
The lesson to the unscrupulous movers-and-shakers seems to be: Just keep
doing what's always been done; you won't suffer any major consequences, and
the taxpayers will meekly bear the burden of the massive bailouts of your
WAITING FOR OBAMA
It's possible that I'm being much too hasty here. Obama isn't even sworn in
yet. In spite of his political career as a centrist pragmatist with
generally liberal leanings, maybe circumstances will force him in another,
more progressive direction. (Good sign: Obama is forcefully supporting the
workers occupying their Chicago factory because their pensions and benefits
disappeared when the owners suddenly closed the plant. Obama wants to find a
way to make them whole.)
Maybe, like FDR, Obama will seize the day in this crisis-filled time to lead
the Democrats, and the country as a whole, in truly significant, sweeping
social/political/economic change. But I'm not holding my breath waiting for
it to happen.
We need a social/political revolution in this country -- and we progressives
must work ceaselessly to make this happen -- but we may have to get used to
incremental change, at least in the first few years of the new
administration. At the very least, after eight years of regressive,
disastrous rule, Obama's America will be moving in the correct direction.
Copyright 2008, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught
government & international relations at universities in California and
Washington, worked as a writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for two
decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).
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