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“Winter of Our Discontent”

A_Christmas_Carol_08In the already-dark of the shortest day of the year, the first day of winter, rather than denying the obvious it feels appropriate to acknowledge a certain lowness of spirits, a mood that the holidays will warm temporarily but not dispel altogether. “Winter of our discontent” (besides opening Shakespeare’s Richard III) was the title of a fund-raising e-mail [1] The Nation sent out last week, and the phrase pretty well describes the mood. This time last year, even though it felt like the U.S. and global economy was spinning down into an abyss, there was much hope in the air because of the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. (It felt almost too good to be true.) Now, the mood is not what one would call elation, or hopeful. “Yes we can” feels like a long time ago.

The Senate Democrats are moving along with their health reform bill, but it is hard to know what to think about it. A few conservative, corporate Democrats and a certain self-styled independent have been posing a greater danger to the ultimate passage than the whole united bloc of intransigent Republicans. So far, since Saturday, the Democrats have held together with the filibuster-proof 60 votes, and many of the outspoken progressive, liberal voices who were critical this time last week are holding their fire, realizing that if this fails, much more we hold dear could crash and burn besides. (Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo lays out the steps [2] toward passage.)

A few weeks ago we explained at some length [3] our discontent (grief and dread would be more accurate) about the president’s decision to escalate U.S. troop (and, ssshhh, contractor) commitments to Afghanistan (and—ssshhh—to the undeclared war in Pakistan). Reading Steve Coll’s magnificent magnum opus Ghost Wars [4] gives us a more informed background on American involvement in that region (since the late 1970s) but no hope that the U.S. will withdraw from there in our lifetimes.

A further cause for dismay is reading Matt Taibbi [5]’s scathing account of Obama’s Big Sellout in the Dec. 10 issue of Rolling Stone [6]. Which sellout? The one to Wall Street, by loading his economic policy team and Treasury appointments with acolytes and protégés of Robert Rubin, with people more loyal to Goldman Sachs and Citigroup than to the “yes-we-can” community organizers and Main Street types who worked to get Obama elected. The article makes it quite plain why the U.S. government is in no position to make the big banks, which last year needed massive federal help to save them from utter ruin, now lend money again to the taxpayers whose money was used to rescue the financial institutions. The unemployment rate is, as the previous president used to say of the economy, “strong and getting stronger.” Obama senses danger—his party is not likely to overperform in the midterm elections—but what is he really going to do? It was only two days after his West Point speech announcing 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan that he told a White House forum on unemployment that “our resources are limited [7].” Now, why is that?

Take Off PJ’s, Get Dressed, and Lay Off the Hallucinogens

As if all this weren’t bad enough, now CNBC’s John Harwood—wasn’t he a reporter somewhere?—pipes in that “so much” of the liberal criticism of the health care reform bill has been “really idiotic.” He opines that liberals who criticize the Senate bill for lacking universal coverage “ought to lay off the hallucinogenic drugs [8] because we’ve had a vivid demonstration of the limits of political possibilities on this issue.” Hey, is he quoting the same White House wit who said to him in October, “Those bloggers need to take off their pajamas, get dressed [9] and realize that governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult”? We strongly suspect Harwood’s not that colorful a speaker; could he be parroting Rahm Emanuel? You betcha.

Even before this setback, things were not going our way. No public option, no Medicare buy-in (no serious White House push for either option), no winding down of the war in Afghanistan . . . In the midst of non-delivery of much of what progressives were hoping for (where’s the new New Deal [10] so many were writing about this time last year?), the right wing is hyperventilating with obstructionist foolishness and hysterical hyperbole as if Obama really were acting like Franklin Roosevelt. If only. (The Conservative Political Action Conference—CPAC—next February will be co-hosted [11] by the John Birch Society [12]. No kidding.) We say, if the right is going to excoriate you as a socialist, then go ahead and be one. Earn their enmity. Ramp it up. Be the real thing. But . . . that is not likely with the Goldman Sachs/Citigroup gang in place at Treasury. Also not likely with a president who has been overly conciliatory with a party locked against him. Though this is not his intention, in effect Obama has been cooperating with the forces of paralysis [13]. But you never know: looking at a possible cataclysm in the midterm elections could bring about some more change we can believe in.

Sick and tired of being sick and tired? (It was worse before last November 4, wasn’t it?) Though dismayed, we won’t lie idle because the only thing worse than feeling defeated is giving up entirely, and that’s not going to happen. It is only in resistance and efforts to make the world less bad than its power-possessors seem to insist on making it; it’s only through persistence and repeated struggle that it’s possible for true progressives to live with themselves. As the labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1837–1930) used to advise, “Sit down and read. Educate yourself [14] for the coming conflicts.” That sounds like good advice in this chilly winter of our discontent. It may get worse yet—after all, it’s only the first day of winter. But we’re not alone, and working keeps us warm.

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Speaking of sitting down (or standing up) and reading, please do consider subscribing to The Nation [15], and contributing if possible to The Nation’s investigative reporting fund [16].

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