Henry Wallace and the Century of Fear

Over the past week, the work that we've done together on this blog on the New Left turned into a short essay that sparked a rather heated conversation over at TPMCafe.  I don't believe the netroots is a political movement, I believe there is a new progressive movement, a 'Forward Left', and that we are one bridging public space for it.  Even posing the question of we think of ourselves, though, and how we describe our ideology, seems to tickle a sensitive spot that makes it difficult to discuss our past.

There are two parallel conversations that bear on this conversation.  One is the most important institutional legacy of the New Left - the labor movement.  It's not well-understood, even among well-educated and likeable fellows like Ed Kilgore, just how reactionary labor was prior to the 1980s.  I recently spoke with several experienced union organizers who came into labor in the 1970s, and we discussed this.  The trade union leaders of the 1960s and 1970s owed their careers to the McCarthyite purges of their left wing rivals in the late 1940s.  In the 1930s, Communists and sympathizers organized huge new industrial unions, but these people were purged after the 1948 Henry Wallace electoral debacle (Wallace was FDR's VP before Truman, and ran for President under the 'progressive party' label on a peace platform).  The left-wing faction of labor recognized the problem of race, and had they remained in positions of power in labor, would have approached the youth surge in the 1960s very differently.  But they didn't, and so labor turned towards a more business-oriented guild model of operation, basically a sort of industrial extortion of corporate interests to elevate some workers at the expense of others.  As a result, instead of allies, the New Left faced a wall of implacably pro-war conservative labor leaders, and rejected them.

As the 1960s came to a close, the movement that existed fell apart.  The end of the draft and the election of Nixon removed the pressure and demoralized a leadership bent on revolutionary change.  As such, the exhaust fumes of the New Left in the early 1970s went in a number of different directions.  Some members went into politics and academia, many dropped out of public life altogether, but a subgroup went in the labor movement.  After thirty years of organizing, these left-wing organizers are now in charge.

It's very difficult to conceive of a new progressive movement that can succeed that doesn't encompass this enormous and powerfully progressive chunk of American politics.  Fortunately, because of these New Lefters who stuck with it, we don't have to.  Labor has become steadily more progressive over the last forty years, even as it has shrunk in size.  It didn't have to be this way.  The anticommunist hysteria didn't have to purge the left from labor and from American society at large.  The New Left didn't have to come into politics facing an alliance of liberals and labor supporting a war in Vietnam and slow movement on desegregation.  Taft-Hartley didn't just destroy the possibility of organizing workers (reversing FDR's legislation), it institutionalized anti-Communism among labor leaders.  That legislation was the consequence of the debates of the 1940s, the ones Peter Beinart loves - a devastated left-wing and a labor movement that would no longer speak for working America.  

The purges of the left in the late 1940s and early 1950s need to be better understood than they are.  Sure we mouth revulsion of McCarthyite tactics, but the silencing of the left in all parts of American culture at that time goes a long way towards explaining our current predicament.

The lack of an institutional left for thirty years answers a question, an important question, that Glenn Greenwald is floating.  He summarized a theme that flows underneath a lot of our discourse, the trivialization of war.

In our political discourse, there just no longer is a strong presumption against war. In fact, it's almost as though there is a reverse presumption -- that we should proceed to wage wars on whatever countries we dislike or which are defying our orders in some way unless someone can find compelling reasons not to. The burden is now on those who would like not to engage in a series of endless wars to demonstrate why we should not.

The reason that America treats war so cavalierly is because of McCarthy's anticommunist purges.  The Progressive Party of 1948 lost at the polls for opposing the draft, calling for desegregation, and arguing that the Truman Doctrine would usher in a 'century of fear' (how close that sounds to Bruce Schneier's 'Security Theater' concept, or the idea of video-game wars!).  Others can make the case that the Wallacites were naive, but it was the vicious repudiation of that group, the refusal to acknowledge that an anti-imperialist worldview was legitimate, that set the stage for what we have to deal with now.  It wasn't just big forces that crushed the left of the time, it was specific tactics by both parties deployed against networks of people who then could no longer argue against warfare as the first choice among many.  These people were stopped from speaking, and so we are where we are today.

WWII was seen as 'the good war', but since then, American has convincingly won only the first Iraq war and the war in the Balkans.  Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all damaged American security, with Korea at best a stalemate.  The Cold War looked like a 'victory', although judging by Russia's recent actions that's not so clear anymore.  But there's been more - the war on drugs, the war on poverty, and the war on terror (even the Cola wars).  The post-WWII era has seen liberal wars, conservative wars, even commercial wars.  It has truly been the century of fear, a bipartisan consensus for aggressive action without consideration of consequence.  That period is coming to an end.  Realists are depressed over the fact that our military-industrial complex is no longer capable of winning wars, and so is looking for new strategies to engage the world with an America constrained by severe resource and fiscal bottlenecks.  They are going to find natural allies with us, a new progressive movement tired of the McCarthyite tactics of everyone from AIPAC to the DLC to entire Republican edifice.  

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The New Progressive Movement

I have a piece over at TPMCafe about the new progressive movement. 

The most puzzling part of what's going on right now is the question of race.  If this is a progressive movement, where is the coordination across racial lines?  My suspicion is that identity liberals, overwhelmingly but not exclusively white, are representing their political selves on the internet because our feelings of betrayal are relatively new.  We're the ones who are seeing reactionary forces up close and personal for the first time, and are outraged as a result.  African-Americans by contrast were much less shocked by the 2000 election, 9/11, and the Iraq War, seeing the aggressive and dishonest power plays as an extension of the racism that is a part of their daily lives.  They already went 90%+ for Gore, it was identity liberals that voted for Nader.  Because we felt betrayed, we changed our behavior.  African-Americans didn't feel betrayed because they didn't have misplaced faith to begin with.

There's a slow convergence happening, though, and it's most obvious today on Martin Luther King Day.  I met hip hop activist and net neutrality proponent Davey D in Memphis at the Media Reform Conference, and he's an opinion leader among black activists and artists.  For him, net neutrality is an extension of a fight over black radio, which has been hit hard by media consolidation and contributed to a depoliticization of African-Americans.  Black media tends to be quite progressive, in fact, though there is a strong corporate element that has taken over large parts of it (BET and RadioOne spring to mind).

Today, both DaveyD and DailyKos posted fiery antiwar speeches by MLK.  It's that kind of in sync thinking that suggests that bridges can and should be built.  I'm curious to understand if Katrina, which was met with an ineffective political response, will be the same spark that the Iraq War was for us, the all-too-silent moment when we realized that change was going to happen, and it would either happen to us or we would be the change agent.

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Open Thread and Poll (Do you have health insurance)

Ever since I started working on understanding the 1960s, I've been learning lots of neat stuff about movements in general.  I have a question about blog readers' economic circumstances and whether you have health care insurance.

I have always had health care insurance, but it's expensive and difficult to procure.  It is one of my biggest worries.  But I have it.  Friends of mine don't.

What is your situation? (Bumped -- Jonathan)

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Bush Wants to Track You Everywhere

To follow up on my last post, here's renowned security expert and cryptographer Bruce Schneier on a really good example of Bush's active malevolence with regards to genuine security.  He's discussing the move to put RFID chips (radio frequency identification chips) in passports.

These chips are like smart cards, but they can be read from a distance. A receiving device can "talk" to the chip remotely, without any need for physical contact, and get whatever information is on it. Passport officials envision being able to download the information on the chip simply by bringing it within a few centimeters of an electronic reader.

Unfortunately, RFID chips can be read by any reader, not just the ones at passport control. The upshot of this is that travelers carrying around RFID passports are broadcasting their identity.

Think about what that means for a minute. It means that passport holders are continuously broadcasting their name, nationality, age, address and whatever else is on the RFID chip. It means that anyone with a reader can learn that information, without the passport holder's knowledge or consent. It means that pickpockets, kidnappers and terrorists can easily--and surreptitiously--pick Americans or nationals of other participating countries out of a crowd.

It is a clear threat to both privacy and personal safety, and quite simply, that is why it is bad idea. Proponents of the system claim that the chips can be read only from within a distance of a few centimeters, so there is no potential for abuse. This is a spectacularly naïve claim. All wireless protocols can work at much longer ranges than specified. In tests, RFID chips have been read by receivers 20 meters away. Improvements in technology are inevitable....

The Bush administration is deliberately choosing a less secure technology without justification. If there were a good offsetting reason to choose that technology over a contact chip, then the choice might make sense.

Unfortunately, there is only one possible reason: The administration wants surreptitious access themselves. It wants to be able to identify people in crowds. It wants to surreptitiously pick out the Americans, and pick out the foreigners. It wants to do the very thing that it insists, despite demonstrations to the contrary, can't be done.

Normally I am very careful before I ascribe such sinister motives to a government agency. Incompetence is the norm, and malevolence is much rarer. But this seems like a clear case of the Bush administration putting its own interests above the security and privacy of its citizens, and then lying about it.

Schneier isn't a political blogger, he's a legendary security expert.  And he's echoing what all of us know is really going on - Bush is actively increasing the risk in our environment so that he can amplify the ability of the state to track and control individuals.  It's all there - the tyranny, the lies, the privacy violations, and the total lack of concern for reality.

The politician who stands up to this obvious tyranny is going to find a welcome audience.  

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Progressive Principle One: An End to Security Theater

One reason I'm interested in the 1960s and the New Left is because this time period has crafted the terms of debate that we use today.  As a new progressive movement, we must both acknowledge and build upon those terms, while introducing our own.  I'm going to run down a few concepts that describe what this new progressive movement is about.  These concepts are cross-cutting.

One of the most important is something called 'Security Theater', a term coined by cryptographer Bruce Schneier.  This concept is what restricting liquids on airplanes, the war in Iraq, the war on drugs, large concrete barricades around Washington, DC, and in some ways restrictions on violent video games have in common.

Security theater has been defined as ostensible security measures which have little real influence on security whilst being publicly visible and designed to show that action is taking place. Security theater has been related to and has some similarities with superstition.


Security theater has a real monetary cost but does not provide tangible benefits. Most security theater involves restricting people's behaviour in very visible ways that likely involve intrusions into liberty and privacy.

Security theater is at heart state-sponsored tyranny.  For instance, not having liquids on planes doesn't appreciably change the risk of terrorist attacks, but it prevents you from having liquids on planes.  Making grass illegal doesn't reduce drug dependency, but it does increase the ability of the government to imprison substantial parts of the population using arbitrary methods.  There is a direct trade-off between security theater and freedom, but our risk is not reduced through security theater.  The war in Iraq has reduced our freedom of action dramatically, and it did for a time make us feel safer.  But it is costly and has increased risk for all of us in many ways.

As progressives, we aren't against security measures or authority, but we are offended by Security Theater.  We are reality-based in orientation and find, say, stupid stories on cyber-terrorism insulting.  We believe that individuals have a role to play in statecraft, and find the lies necessary to sustain the perception of risk in Security Theater insulting and destructive.

The right-wing is entirely about Security Theater and nothing more.  Bush and his ilk really don't try to reduce actual risk for Americans.  What conservative reactionaries try to do is increase the perception of action while increasing the perception of risk.  They tend to lie about the dangers so they can look more heroic and perpetuated what really is a set of superstitions about security.   It's the perfect marriage of religious right absolutism, corporate incompetence, and mass media - PR as security and state-sponsored restrictions.

Undoing the Security Theater state is going to be a major task for progressives over the next thirty years.  Security Theater is everywhere, not just in our airports.  Take the war on drugs.  Bill Clinton and George Bush both used drugs but wouldn't admit it.  Barack Obama admitted cocaine use and no one cares (or should care).  Yet the war on drugs continues to imprison and punish millions even as our elites admit openly to flouting the law.  Let me just repeat that - the last two Presidents were drug-users and paid no price for it, yet drugs are still illegal.  The war on drugs doesn't perceptibly reduce drug dependency, make us a safer society or improve freedom for citizens, it often does the opposite.  But it made a lot of people feel good.  That's wrong.  

Democrats get this intuitively, even if they are clumsy about it. I'm drawn to the REAL Security Act that the Democrats ran on in 2006.  The name says it all - 'we're real, they are theater'.  Similarly, the war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism, but it made us feel good for a time.  What would reduce the threat of terrorism is to stop killing kids in the Middle East and changing our energy usage patterns.  These are both positions that Democrats are much closer to embracing than Republicans.

Anyway, Security Theater, I think it's an important concept for progressives. The idea that there's a trade-off between civil liberties and security is stupid, but there is a trade-off between civil liberties and security theater.

Anyway, I just thought I'd throw this term out as a bedrock principle for a new progressive movement that values liberty and community - we value freedom over PR.

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