November 10, 2009

An Extraordinary Man

In a recent post about the "health care reform" horror show, I offered this observation about almost all national politicians:
With very few exceptions, and the exceptions are so few in number that they cannot alter the general direction of events, these are corrupt individuals operating in a profoundly corrupt and infinitely corrupting system.
I employ phrases such as, "with a handful of exceptions," from time to time, to acknowledge the very small number of politicians in Washington who don't merely say they oppose the continuing and increasing oppressions of the corporatist system that has been slowly strangling us for over a century (most politicians say they oppose all that: it's like loving Mom and apple pie) -- but who consistently act against the depredations of corporatism to the extent they can.

Dennis Kucinich is one of those rare exceptions. In upcoming articles in the series I recently began, I will examine the vast chasm that separates what most Democrats, including most progressives, claim to care about so desperately, and what the evidence indicates they actually care about. Unsurprisingly, especially in view of the retreat of the Democrats and progressives from every goal for health reform that they themselves had established as benchmarks, their real goals are not what they announce to others. But then, behavior of this kind is everyday fare for politicians and those who service them. This is true not only of the United States and not only in our time, as any historical review would establish beyond question.

If progressives generally, including the online progressive community, were sincere about what they proclaim to be their goals, they would enthusiastically offer Kucinich the respect and admiration he has long deserved. They would express their gratitude for his continuing efforts on behalf of those aims they claim to share. For the most part, you will read and hear none of that. It was particularly noticeable during the last campaign, when progressives themselves sought to marginalize Kucinich entirely. The most effective means of doing so was simply to ignore him -- which is exactly what they did. When they mentioned Kucinich at all, it was almost always to mock and deride him. The progressives will tell you they were only being "realistic," for Kucinich had no chance to win. In this way, the progressives adopt the Democrats' all-purpose rationalization for indefensible compromise, and they reverse cause and effect: of course he had no chance to win, just as genuine health care reform didn't have a chance in hell (genuine from the progressives' perspective), so long as Democrats and progressives themselves absolutely refuse to lead.

They never demonstrate leadership, or integrity, or consistency, and they inevitably fail to achieve the goals they say are so dear to them. They then use each failure as proof of how difficult the battle is and how frighteningly powerful are the forces arrayed against them, and as a demonstration of why principled action would never have succeeded. They hope you won't remember that they never considered seriously fighting for what they claim to be their beliefs, or that they surrendered before the battle was joined. Since this is politics, very few people do remember; even fewer care. And so the empty, futile charade continues.

They also ignore Kucinich most of the time because of the reproach he represents. Kucinich is what genuine opposition looks like. In a world where lies are the common currency, Kucinich speaks the truth. Even worse, he means what he says and he acts on it. Thus, he voted against this abomination of a "health reform" bill.

This is not to say that I personally agree with all of Kucinich's policy positions. I don't. In terms of the issues I'm discussing, my agreement is completely irrelevant. Kucinich grants me the opportunity to feel admiration and gratitude. Our culture and our politics offer endless opportunities to feel near-terminal boredom in response to stultifying conformity of thought and expression and, at a very different point on the spectrum, horror at the immense, almost ungraspable cruelties that occur every day. The chance to experience meaningful admiration is extraordinarily rare; I treasure each such opportunity as I would a precious gem. I offer my sincere thanks to Mr. Kucinich for the unexpected gift.

This reminds me of a truly great American hero, Robert La Follette. I regularly recall La Follette here, for his story is deeply inspiring and it continues to hold many lessons for today. As I've said before, it is a measure of how far we have traveled from almost a century ago, and how far down, that very few people today know anything about this extraordinary man. I last wrote about La Follette in September 2008, in "A Time Bereft of Heroes." Both because many readers don't follow links and because I myself never tire of reading this, here is the opening of an article by John Nichols:
ON March 25, 1921, at the age of sixty-five, Robert M. La Follette Sr. took the greatest risk of his long political career. Four years after he chose to lead the Congressional opposition to World War I, La Follette was still condemned in Washington and in his native state of Wisconsin as a traitor or--at best--an old man whose political instincts had finally failed him. But La Follette was not ready to surrender the U.S. Senate seat he had held since leaving Wisconsin's governorship in 1906. He wanted to return to Washington to do battle once more against what he perceived to be the twin evils of the still young century: corporate monopoly at home and imperialism abroad.

The reelection campaign that loomed just a year off would be difficult, he was told, perhaps even impossible. Old alliances had been strained by La Follette's lonely refusal to join in the war cries of 1917 and 1918. To rebuild them, the Senator's aides warned, he would have to abandon his continued calls for investigations of war profiteers and his passionate defense of socialist Eugene Victor Debs and others who had been jailed in the postwar Red Scare.

The place to backpedal, La Follette was told, would be in a speech before the crowded Wisconsin Assembly chamber in Madison. Moments before the white-haired Senator climbed to the podium on that cold March day, he was warned one last time by his aides to deliver a moderate address, to apply balm to the still-open wounds of the previous years, and, above all, to avoid mention of the war and his opposition to it.

La Follette began his speech with the formalities of the day, acknowledging old supporters and recognizing that this was a pivotal moment for him politically. Then, suddenly, La Follette pounded the lectern. "I am going to be a candidate for reelection to the United States Senate," he declared, as the room shook with the thunder of a mighty orator reaching full force. Stretching a clenched fist into the air, La Follette bellowed: "I do not want the vote of a single citizen under any misapprehension of where I stand: I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead."

The crowd sat in stunned silence for a moment before erupting into thunderous applause. Even his critics could not resist the courage of the man; indeed, one of his bitterest foes stood at the back of the hall, with tears running down his cheeks, and told a reporter: "I hate the son of a bitch. But, my God, what guts he's got."

This was the La Follette that his friend Emma Goldman referred to lovingly as "the finest, most inconsistent anarchist" of his time. This was the man so fierce in his convictions that he would risk consignment to political oblivion rather than abandon an unpopular position. The antithesis of the elected officials whose compromises characterize our contemporary condition, La Follette genuinely believed that the inheritors of America's revolutionary tradition would, if given the truth, opt not for moderation but for the most radical of solutions.
Hate the son of a bitch if you must -- but recognize his greatness. Here is another lesson for those who say they oppose the crimes of our corporatist-authoritarian-militarist state but fail to do anything to stop them, even when they can: La Follette won reelection overwhelmingly.

It is a considerable jolt to return to our colorless, petty contemporary politics after feeling the heat and vitality of La Follette's courage. But we can look at Dennis Kucinich, who offers an illustration of the same principle on a lesser scale. Kucinich has written an explanation of his vote on the "health care" bill: "Why I Voted No." Here are some excerpts:
Clearly, the insurance companies are the problem, not the solution. They are driving up the cost of health care. Because their massive bureaucracy avoids paying bills so effectively, they force hospitals and doctors to hire their own bureaucracy to fight the insurance companies to avoid getting stuck with an unfair share of the bills. The result is that since 1970, the number of physicians has increased by less than 200% while the number of administrators has increased by 3000%. It is no wonder that 31 cents of every health care dollar goes to administrative costs, not toward providing care. Even those with insurance are at risk. The single biggest cause of bankruptcies in the U.S. is health insurance policies that do not cover you when you get sick.

But instead of working toward the elimination of for-profit insurance, H.R. 3962 would put the government in the role of accelerating the privatization of health care. In H.R. 3962, the government is requiring at least 21 million Americans to buy private health insurance from the very industry that causes costs to be so high, which will result in at least $70 billion in new annual revenue, much of which is coming from taxpayers. This inevitably will lead to even more costs, more subsidies, and higher profits for insurance companies—a bailout under a blue cross.


The “robust public option” which would have offered a modicum of competition to a monopolistic industry was whittled down from an initial potential enrollment of 129 million Americans to 6 million. An amendment which would have protected the rights of states to pursue single-payer health care was stripped from the bill at the request of the Administration. Looking ahead, we cringe at the prospect of even greater favors for insurance companies.

Recent rises in unemployment indicate a widening separation between the finance economy and the real economy. The finance economy considers the health of Wall Street, rising corporate profits, and banks’ hoarding of cash, much of it from taxpayers, as sign of an economic recovery. However in the real economy—in which most Americans live—the recession is not over. Rising unemployment, business failures, bankruptcies and foreclosures are still hammering Main Street.
Kucinich is fully correct on the central point, which is the nature and operation of our corporatist system. I recently described that system, and how it works with regard to health care, this way:
I point you again to Chris Floyd's wonderfully brief and entirely accurate summary of what is going on in the health care reform debate. It's no debate at all: whatever happens, certain already immensely powerful and wealthy corporations closely allied with the State will become still more powerful and wealthy. Given the nature of the corporatist system that now throttles every aspect of life in the U.S., that is how the system works. That's how it's set up, and that's its purpose. The fact that insurance companies will reap huge rewards on the backs of "ordinary" taxpaying Americans is not a regrettable byproduct of an allegedly good but imperfect effort at reform, or a flaw that will be fixed at some unspecified future date. And as already powerful and wealthy interests become more powerful and wealthy, the State will also increase its already massive power over all our lives still more. None of that is incidental: it's the point.
Dennis Kucinich would be rare in any field of human endeavor. In politics, an individual like Kucinich is almost unheard of: he is a principled man. Is he perfect? Of course not; none of us is. And he works in a thoroughly corrupt system, which means that not only his principles, but principles as such, are under assault every second of every day.

Given that, Kucinich's record is unusual in the extreme. His repeated willingness to act in accordance with his declared convictions is extraordinary. One further aspect of Kucinich's record demands mention: on the "health care" vote, as on Kucinich's consistent refusal to vote for funding for America's criminal and illegal wars and occupations, Kucinich is supremely right.

Very few people appreciate or even acknowledge the overwhelming significance of that fact, which is ultimately the most important fact of all. Those of us who do should highlight it at every opportunity -- and we should offer our grateful thanks.