Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Mike’s Letter from America # 9

Got the T-Shirt?

Sometimes Wikipedia gets it right. A few weeks ago the much-maligned on-line encyclopedia described Sarah Palin as the Republican nominee for vice-president, several hours before the official announcement was made. Ironically at the same time I was telling my students about the dangers of trusting Wikipedia as a reliable source. As I drove home from class, BBC World Service on my car radio was announcing that, indeed the governor of Alaska was to be John McCain’s running-mate.

 Needless to say, there is nothing good about Palin’s nomination, despite her being only the second woman to run for the vice-presidency on a major-party ticket, and despite some of her critics comparing her to Hugo Chavez! (http://www.adn.com/front/story/442702.html) Palin ticks most of the Christian-conservative boxes: anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-environment, pro-war, pro-creationism. She is on record as saying that the Iraq War was ‘God’s task’ for Americans. It goes without saying that, as a Republican from oil-rich Alaska, she is in favor in drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and doesn’t believe that climate change is human-made. An opponent of abortion (even in cases of rape), she also advocates ‘abstinence only’ sex-education in schools. Soon after her candidacy was announced, it was revealed that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter was pregnant, suggesting that abstinence hadn’t been entirely successful in the case of her own family. As mayor of the small town of Wasilla, Alaska, she insisted on rape victims paying $1200 for the cost of the ‘rape kit’ used by the police to obtain forensic evidence. As governor, she attempted to fire her sister’s ex-husband from his job as a state policeman, and then sacked the state official who refused to go along with it. Just for good measure, she is now refusing to cooperate with the official investigation into the affair.

Palin is a curious choice given the Republicans’ criticism of Obama as too inexperienced, as before she became governor less than two years ago her highest political office was mayor of a city with fewer than 9000 inhabitants. But of course, this isn’t about Palin’s abilities (or lack of them), it’s a cynical ploy by the Republicans to embarrass the Democrats in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s narrow failure to win the presidential nomination, and to win over women voters. This always seemed unlikely, given Palin’s views on rape and abortion, and the latest polls show a 21% swing to the Democrats among women voters.  

Palin’s reputation (such as it is) rests on the bogus claim that she is an outspoken anti-establishment figure – much like McCain, but even more conservative. At the Republican convention she claimed, to loud cheers, to have stopped the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’. This was a notorious example of what are euphemistically known as ‘earmarks’ (and less politely, as ‘pork’); spending measures added to bills in Congress by representatives keen to see federal money spent on their home states. What she failed to mention was that she initially campaigned for the bridge, and (unless it’s been removed by now) Wikipedia shows a picture of her wearing a T-shirt supporting the project. It’s true that, as governor, she cancelled the bridge - but she still kept the money. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravina_Island_Bridge  

All of this confirms what we already know – that the Republican right are a bunch of bigoted right-wing Christian fruit loops in hock to Big Oil. But what’s happening in the Democratic camp? As I reported last time, Obama is moving to the right to court ‘mainstream’ America, but that hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm his supporters feel. Right now, my 14-year-old step-daughter has just returned from an Obama rally (“it was AWESOME”) which gives you some indication of Obama’s appeal to idealistic young people.

The gulf between the suspicions that we on the left may have of Obama, and the excitement felt about his candidacy among many Americans, was brought home to me when I attended the Detroit Jazz Festival during the Labor Day weekend, just after the Democratic convention where Obama officially accepted his party’s nomination. Detroit is one of the Blackest cities in the northern states, and arguably one of the most working-class. At its height, the now-devastated automobile industry of ‘Motor City’ attracted hundreds of thousands of African-American workers to Michigan, escaping poverty and segregation in the South. I was struck by how many people – and, in particular, how many African-American people – were wearing Obama T-shirts. And they weren’t official T-shirts from the Obama campaign, but an exuberant array of different (no doubt unofficial) designs, including a particularly fetching image of Obama’s face picked out in sequins. But perhaps the most revealing shirt (politically revealing, that is) showed a picture of Obama’s face morphed with that of Martin Luther King, above the words ‘I was there when history was made’ along with the date and the name of a local cinema. The shirt was, of course, worn by an African-American man. In other words, Obama’s acceptance speech was not only viewed by millions of people on their TVs at home – it was an event that working-class Black people went out to bars, theatres, and cinemas to watch together, so that they could share a moment of history.

There lies the contradiction of Obama – a very mainstream candidate in terms of his policies, he has nonetheless become for millions an inspiration and a symbol of hope. Given the choice between ‘Obama the movement’ (to use Michael Moore’s phrase) and a Republican ticket that has just unambiguously identified itself with the most reactionary and loopy elements of the Christian right, it’s increasingly difficult for socialists to argue the ‘they’re as bad each other’ line. Somehow, the left in the U.S.A. has to find a way of identifying with ‘Obama the movement’ while arguing the case for an anti-capitalist third party.