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March 2005
Election Daze

By Pattrice Jones

One of the few extant artifacts of my childhood is a timeline of my life that I made for a sixth grade assignment. As might be expected, family changes like the birth of my little sister and childish achievements like my first sentence comprise the entries marking the years between 1961 and 1972. But in 1968 is a rather startling departure from the pattern. Scrawled aslant among personal landmarks and family changes are the words “assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.”

What provoked me to note that assassination out of all the “current events” of which I had been vaguely or acutely aware in my early years? I don’t even remember it. I do remember the assassination of MLK that same year and the riots that rocked my hometown of Baltimore in the aftermath of that tragedy. I remember burned out buildings and cars with “soul brother” scrawled in soap on their windows. In my mind were earlier black-and-white TV images of fire hoses turned against people who just wanted the right to vote. I remember sitting on the living room floor as the grownups in the dining room discussed the riots, which were preventing my grandmother from getting to work. Abstractedly playing with plastic dinosaurs, I thought that those people had a right to riot. Not yet seven years old and having no rights that my unpredictable and sometimes violent mother was bound to respect, I felt a little bit like rioting myself.

Thirty years later, I received a box of my grandmother’s things after she died. Among the greeting cards and vacation souvenirs she had collected and kept over the years was one and only one sign of any interest whatsoever in politics or public life: A carefully preserved copy of the Baltimore Sun from the morning after RFK was shot. I’ll never know why he or his death was so important to her. I do know that many people date the death of their innocence to that day.

In November of 2002, down with the flu in Florence during the European Social Forum, I picked up a copy of The Cold Six-Thousand, which is James Ellroy’s fictionalized account of the assassinations. The book made me feel even more physically ill but I could not stop reading it. In the stuffy and smelly hotel room, on the plane back to the States, and onto the couch in my living room I kept turning pages, transfixed by the ugly truth Ellroy so skillfully forces his readers to face: Whatever the facts of those particular killings, there were and are men capable of covert operations that can change the course of history. They are amoral and capable of both subtlety and violence. They care about money and power and not much more. They live right next door. Coups and disappearances and rigged elections don’t just happen to other people. We have met the disenfranchised and they are us.

While I was busy being scared by The Cold Six-Thousand, Senator Robert Byrd was making loaded references to first century Roman Senator Helvidius Priscus, who was assassinated for disagreeing with the emperor Vespasian. “There are members of the U.S. Senate and House,” said Byrd, “who are terrified apparently if the president of the United States tells them, urges them, to vote a certain way that may be against their belief.”

Was Byrd speaking literally? Have legislators been truly afraid to buck Bush? Who really killed King and the Kennedys? Who really carried Florida in 2000? Who really carried Ohio in 2004? Why did both Kerry and Gore decline to use all legal means to determine whether or not they had won the most powerful job in the world? Does it make me a conspiracy theorist to wonder about patterns and feel a little bit afraid?

Fresh Squeezed
Ballot box homophobia is nothing new but it feels like a fresh punch in the stomach every time. Since we’ll never know whether differences between exit polls and official results were due to fraud or faulty statistics, we’ll never be sure whether the anti-gay initiatives in Ohio and ten other states were the powerful pro-Bush tools they appeared to be in 2004. We do know that many thousands of voters in those states took themselves to the polls for the express purpose of depriving their gay neighbors of benefits that wouldn’t have hurt anyone. Many more voters nationwide set aside their own economic interests in order to cast a ballot for Bush, who had promised them a Constitutional amendment against gay marriage.

They must have enjoyed themselves. I remember dragging my dispirited butt to high school on the morning after the 1977 referendum in which Florida voters, inspired by Anita Bryant’s “Save the Children” campaign, rolled back anti-discrimination protections that had been granted to gay men and lesbians in Dade County. None of my teachers or fellow students seemed to understand the insult of it. They seemed to see it as a matter of citizens dispassionately weighing in on a controversial issue. I saw people gleefully going out of their way to take something away from others.
The spiteful face of the anti-gay voter is still invisible to most commentators but is an all-too familiar visage to anyone who has been taunted or bashed for their sexual orientation. They enjoy hurting us. That’s a fact.

The Florida fiasco of 1977 enraged gay men and lesbians, leading to an upsurge in radical activism. I worry that, this time, we may end up more demoralized than energized.

The Dirty Dozen
I teach “Contemporary Speech” at a historically black college in rural Maryland. For most of my students, the presidential election of 2004 was the first in which they were eligible to vote. Many were excited by the prospect. Some chose to do informational or persuasive speeches about the importance of voting and one went so far as to conduct a survey of likely non-voters in her Baltimore neighborhood. Other students were skeptical, expressing the view that Bush would find a way to hang onto the White House whether or not he won, but none were apathetic.

The day after the election, my students and I struggled together to make sense of what had happened. Many were upset by the speed of Kerry’s concession and became even more so as we discussed the vagaries of electronic voting and the possibility of undetectable hacking of voting machines. “You mean we might never know who really won?” one student asked in anguish as another, who had done some reading on the subject, nodded knowingly. Those who had placed the most faith in the process were the most angry and confused. By way of commiseration, I told them about the first election in which I was eligible to vote. I tried to describe how hard it was to take B-movie actor Ronald Reagan seriously as a candidate and what a shock it was when he became President of the United States.

That conversation reminded me of the many concordances between then and now. Thinking of G.W. Bush’s strategic use of “9/11,” I remembered the drama of “the hostage crisis” and what we’ve learned since about how it may have been manipulated by G.H.W. Bush to favor Reagan. I thought about Reagan’s “Evil Empire” versus G.W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” I thought about Latin American death squads and Middle Eastern torture chambers. I thought of tax cuts for the rich and massive military spending paid for by cutting services to the poor. I remembered Secretary of the Interior James Watt who, as Grist Magazine has recently reminded us, defended deforestation because “after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”

Looking back, the 12-year reign of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush feels a little bit like a fevered dream. One forgets, but then suddenly remembers, raped nuns in Central America or the idea that trees cause pollution. It’s like a trauma that, suppressed, is bound to be acted out over and over again.

The first time I heard Bill Clinton debate, I knew he was going to win. Just looking at him made me feel a little bit queasy, which is a sure sign that a politician has the required level of smarminess to succeed. By the time the general election rolled around, the source of that queasiness was as clear as the fact that this man did, in fact, seem to have what it would take to put an end to the Reagan-Bush regime. I was working at Ann Arbor’s Baker-Mandela Center for Anti-Racist Education and many of us who gathered to watch the election returns shared the same mix of trepidation and relief. After 12 long years, the Reagan-Bush nightmare was over. Or so we thought.

Deja Vu All Over Again
My partner and I run a sanctuary for chickens in a region dominated by the poultry industry. Saturday the 20th of January, 2001 was a day of unspeakable and surreal frustration, anguish, and fear. I woke up with the knowledge that Bush was to be inaugurated and to the news that two birds had been found dead in the coop that morning. All day long, birds died despite our best efforts to save them while at the very same time not so far away George W. Bush assumed power despite our best efforts to stop him.

Despite blood tests and necropsies, the vet never was able to determine the cause of what was and remains our most deadly day here at the Eastern Shore Sanctuary. Nor have we learned how to understand or prevent the ascendancy of the Bush regime.

Multiple forces converged and combined to hand the White House over to George W. Bush on that dreary January day. The Democrats made their usual mistake of chasing the mythical mainstream rather than strengthening and broadening their natural constituency. The Greens became a real political party, placing narrow party interests above the interests of poor people, animals, and the environment. Nader lied—yes, lied—by exaggerating the equivalence of Gore and Bush. The media stressed the “beauty contest” aspects of the race, declined to provide the facts with which voters might have assessed the candidates’ competing claims, and yammered on about inanities like Al Gore inventing the Internet.

Things got even worse after election day. Then came the aborted Florida recount and newspaper editorials telling us that we must preserve democracy by accepting the theft of an election. On Inauguration Day, protesters showed up with signs reading “Bush bad for environment” and “Bush bad for women,” as if he were a legitimately elected official with whom they happened to disagree rather than a despot seizing control of their country.

Within six months of seizing power, the Bush-Cheney team reversed a Clinton-Gore administration policy requiring states to hasten clean-up efforts aimed at non-point pollution such as toxic run-off from factory farms and logging sites. We all knew that Bush would roll back or reverse protective environmental policies that Gore had supported or enacted. To many of us, the “Green” Party’s active participation in efforts to obscure that reality was the most shocking aspect of election 2000. I can only imagine how Green Party members felt as they watched Bush roll back 200—that’s right, 200—environmental regulations during his first three years in office.

While we usually can say, “it’s not the end of the world” about an unfortunate election result, we can’t be so sure this time. This has been so amply documented that it is clear to everyone whose vision has not been refracted by the a priori conviction that two militaristic white guys beholden to corporate interests must be identical in every way.

In 2004, the Greens elected a more ethical position, rightfully subordinating their narrow party interests to the global interest of getting the Bush regime out of power before it facilitated more irreversible harm to our shared environment. Unfortunately, other leftists were more concerned with political theory than ecological reality. Just as they did with Bush and Gore, they insisted that Bush and Kerry were functionally equivalent.

(For the record, the corridors of power are clogged with militaristic white guys beholden to corporate interests. They do not agree with each other about everything. Sometimes, their disagreements involve matters that substantially impact the lives of others. What we ought to do in such a circumstance is a matter of debate, but we can’t come to an ethical decision unless we begin with an honest assessment of the material facts.)

Watching the 2004 contest unfold was like watching one of those “comedy of errors” shows where you know something the protagonist doesn’t know. Again and again, Kerry made exactly the same mistakes as Gore. Again and again, leftists insisted that Bush = Kerry = Gore. The mainstream media provided their usual less-than-enlightening fare. Reports about the susceptibility of computerized voting machines to undetectable hacking appeared and faded without incident.

And the shadowy figures like the conspirators in The Cold Six-Thousand did...what?

Going Out on a Limb
Native American scholar and activist Ward Churchill is under fire these days for his unkind and unwise, if not entirely untrue, characterization of murdered World Trade Center workers as “little Eichmanns.” I think that Churchill was trying to tell us something about the modern variants of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” I assume that, in choosing such strong language, Churchill was trying to shock us into confronting our own complicity in the crimes of our times.

Whatever we may think about Churchill’s statement, the fact remains that we all are “good Germans” now. Unlike the covert operations of the Reagan years, the bribery and torture and indefinite detentions of the G.W. Bush regime are pursued openly as official policy. We’ve all seen the grins on the faces of the Abu Ghraib torturers. Whatever analyses or excuses we may have read or believed, we know in our hearts that those soldiers enjoyed hurting those prisoners.

The man who wrote the memo condoning that torture has just been confirmed as Attorney General.

Cooperation with the Bush regime is complicity with torture. Two ways to withdraw financial support from the Bush regime are to stop paying taxes and to boycott the profiteers that constitute the industrial side of the military-industrial complex. These strategies ensure that we don’t support torture with money at the same time as we oppose torture with words.

Economic direct action subtracts funds from the war machine and its corporate supporters. Such direct action may impact the foreign and domestic policies of the Bush regime. Just like veganism, economic direct action against war and for the environment is imperative if one wishes to avoid complicity with unspeakable cruelty.

Pattrice Jones urges readers to visit for boycott information and for tax resistance information.



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