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The Cradle Will Rock
Consider yourself warned: “Liberals” are learning about the NPA. And they are not happy.
In most cases these days, people who call themselves “liberals” are a far cry from the proud radicals who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stood shoulder to shoulder with workers; who understood that the correct default position regarding large commercial ventures is distrust; and who were committed to equal rights - RIGHT NOW! - for all people.
Phil Ochs said it best nearly fifty years ago:
Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I've grown older and wiser
And that's why I'm turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal
That's right, the shrinking liberals who now rule the Democratic Party are not new. They've been around for fifty years and more, commpromising away the victories that were won in this nation's first Progressive Era. They've done it for money, for power, and all the while claimed that they're doing "what's best for everyone."
So it's no wonder these ersatz liberals - we call them them false progressives - don't like the NPA's plan to recruit a primary challenger to President Obama. And it just goes to follow that they’ll be really pissed when - after “Obillion” and his sold-out party buy his re-nomination - we endorse an independent or third-party candidate over both marionettes the major parties put up in November of 2012.
You’re probably wondering why we’ve put “liberals” in quotes. It’s because “liberals” don’t actually exist.
As Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges documents with scholarly, footnoted precision in his latest book, the Liberal Class is dead. Its passing is why the Democratic Party - and with it, America - has double-timed its goose step to the orders of corporate elites.
“Liberals” like to dispute both their death and their continuing role in our nation’s decline. It’s sad, really, because what they don’t yet see is that their institutions - from Big Labor to the National Organization for Women to the NAACP - have abandoned them.
Sadder still is what “liberals” seem to like doing most: Drown out truth-tellers - like Hedges, like Cindy Sheehan, like Cornel West, like the NPA - who are trying to sound the alarm.
“Liberals” just hate it when we point out the abject, across-the-board failure of the Democratic Party over the past 50 years, and get madder still when we have the - um, audacity - to call out Barack Obama’s total lack of leadership on basic Progressive issues: Unemployment, financial regulation, health insurance reform, the environment, war, privacy, torture, Guantanamo, civil rights.
Silly us. Thinking we were included in that whole “freedom of speech” thing.
The Liberal Class is carefully autopsied in Hedges’ book. It was once made up of pushy, uncompromising, doggedly Lefty institutions which held in check the placing of profit above people - the certain result of deregulated capitalism. The Liberal Class’s complicity in the screwing of the working class was born of its own interest in retaining trifling power, Hedges explains, coupled with its willingness to support the Democratic Party as the “lesser of two evils” in order to secure that illusory power.
The results (among others) are that the U.S. is perpetually at war; is on the brink of economic collapse; and is responsible for the continued degradation of our environment, to the point where devastating fallout as a result of climate change is already guaranteed.
Hedges’ prescription? Civil disobedience and open disregard for laws which suppress popular dissent or otherwise enable the oppression of common people by the corporate elite, who now rule with impunity.
A particularly engaging - and, social change-wise, instructive - section of "Death of the Liberal Class" is Hedges' reporting on the Federal Theatre Project (FTP).
This component of FDR’s WPA (Works Progress Administration) supported writers, actors, directors, designers, and musicians left unemployed in the Great Depression, he writes, staging
hundreds and hundreds of productions in every state in the union... It was the high point of American theater.
The productions - which took on factory owners, bankers, coal mine owners, government bureaucrats, and industrialists - led to howls of protest from the power elite. It Can't Happen Here, a drama that illustrated how fascism could take hold in the United States, was based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis. It opened in twenty-one theaters in seventeen states on October 27, 1936. The Hollywood Citizen-News reported that “the project has been the target of criticism from sources saying the play will antagonize sympathizers of the Hitler and Mussolini regimes.”
Eight months later, a musical called The Cradle Will Rock was due to open on Broadway. A strong indictment of injustices toward workers in “Steel-town, U.S.A.,” the production was mounted by Orson Welles and John Houseman, who had led the FTP’s successful “Negro Theatre Unit” in Harlem. But three days before the show’s premiere, Hedges reports, Washington bowed to complaints and defunded the Federal Theatre Project. The Broadway venue where The Cradle Will Rock was to open, writes Hedges,
was surrounded by WPA security guards [...] since, the government argued, props and costumes inside were government property. Welles, Houseman, and [writer Marc] Blitzstein [who was blacklisted 13 years later thanks to HUAC] rented the Venice Theatre and a piano. They met the audience outside the shuttered theater and marched the audience and the cast twenty blocks to the Venice.
[B]y 9 p.m., the Venice’s 1,742 seats were filled. Actors’ Equity had forbidden the cast to perform the piece “onstage.” Blitzstein, who sat alone at the piano, was prepared to play and perform all the roles. Olive Stanton, a little-known relief actress who depended on her small WPA check to support her mother and herself, stood up from her seat when Blitzstein began and sang her opening number. It was a singular act of courage.
Hedges says the rest of the cast, scattered around the audience, followed suit - performing the entire show from their seats - prompting the poet Archibald MacLeish, who attended, to call it one of the most moving theatrical experiences of his life.
Houseman was promptly fired by the project and Welles quit. [...] “This was obviously censorship under a different guise,” [Hallie] Flanagan [director of the FTP] noted at the time.
FDR’s New Deal was the last gasp for broad American Progressivism after Woodrow Wilson took us into WWI, Hedges notes. But in his story of the Federal Theatre Project lies a broader point: Theater has the power to wake people up.
Many say our politics - from elections right through to what now passes for policy debate - is theater. I’m no Chris Hedges, but I’ve been watching and writing about politics at every level for a long time - 35 years - and one thing that has struck me about our presidential primary elections is how jealously both parties protect, and how ruthlessly they enforce, their tried-and-true electoral script; not to wake us up, but to keep us in check.
The script goes like this:
“A primary challenge? Sure! Bring it on! This is America! The people must be heard! If someone is unhappy with President Obama’s amazing performance during his first term and think they can do better, they should by all means step up to the plate!”
Having thus wrapped themselves in the flag, they next recite a trumped-up list of the president’s “achievements,” complete with a condescending chuckle at the notion that anybody would dream of “threatening party unity,” or being so “unpatriotic” as to challenge the incumbent “when our nation is at war.” (Which now, conveniently, happens to be all the time.)
Clearing their throat, they go on:
“But if they insist, we of course expect the challenger will maintain commonly accepted decorum and - when their bid is unsuccessful, as it surely will be - will throw whatever support they might garner to the President. It’s just fitting and correct that we rally ‘round the victor, to ensure party unity and heal any wounds the primary fight might have opened.”
Both parties have used this script against us throughout our history, squelching popular movements with the not-so-veiled insinuation that primary challenges to sitting presidents are “bad for America.”
But what would happen if we tore up the script?
What if we decided - quite consciously and strategically - to heed Chris Hedges’ call for civil disobedience, and directed it toward our electoral process?
What if we were just as overt in screwing with party politics as our on-the-take leaders are covert in screwing with us every day day of the week? In their case it is unethical and immoral. In ours, it could be the most ethical, moral, important act in which we ever engage.
Read on, and judge for yourself.
The challenge begins at the beginning, of course, in the Iowa caucuses. Small but determined groups manage to stand “uncommitted” rather than support Barack Obama in many - perhaps all - of the Hawkeye State’s counties. A blip, perhaps - but the battle is joined, and a challenger rises to oppose the screwing of the many to benefit the few.
On to New Hampshire, where retail politics still lives. Our challenger shakes the hands of just as many New Hampshirites as the president, explaining how the promises of reform made in 2008 and for nearly all of the 100 years before have been forgotten, and must be brought strongly to bear on behalf of the people - this time, forever.
Maybe our challenger loses; maybe he or she wins. But either way, the message is sent - and people around the country receive it.
As primary season rolls on it becomes clear: The fix is in. Obama’s billion will buy him re-nomination.
But our challenger doesn’t follow the script. They refuse to go away.
They fly on frequent flyer miles donated by NPA supporters; travel each state in the cars of those who coordinate online to assure timely “candidate exchanges.” They sleep and eat in supporters’ homes, and they keep fighting, hounding the President, refuting his hollow claims of achievement and debating him at every opportunity - all the way to the convention.
Then, at the moment they are expected to stand before the American people and recite the words the party establishment has directed them to say - “I throw my support to the President of the United States, Barack Obama!” - they state instead the hard truth which more Americans each day are coming to see:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot continue selling the seats of power to the highest bidders, and seriously expect those bidders to put the common good above their own narrow interests. People are without jobs. Our planet is dying. We are constantly at war.
“We must put people before profits. We must once again empower the people to choose those who make the laws by which we live. It is time to make clear that our lawmakers work for us, not BP or Smith Barney or Bank of America or any corporate master.
“I therefore throw my support to neither this party nor the other - but to us, the American people - and I encourage you to volunteer, work, and vote for ________________.”
On that line would be the name of the NPA’s endorsed general election candidate. It may be an Independent or a member of a third party, but whomever it is, they will have to pledge publicly to uphold the Unified Progressive Platform (now being crafted by NPA volunteers) in order to gain our endorsement.
Picture the reaction.
Big Media would be stunned.
The Democratic Party would convulse.
Rewriting the script this way will be a hundred times more effective than issuing congressional report cards, lobbying “liberal” organizations or continuing to believe that “partnering” with our UniParty legislators and president “works.” It will create a lasting, uncompromising, unified voice for Progressive reform at the national level, a responsibility the Democratic Party first abrogated in 1917. That’s nearly 100 years.
The NPA strategy is what real democracy looks like, my friends. It isn’t neat or tidy. It doesn’t rest, and it resists at any cost the oppression of common people, the vanishing of the middle class, the pursuit of perpetual war, and the fouling of our environment. Democracy opposes these things, but our Democratic “leaders” only enable them.
We must toss the script to which we have relinquished our power in the fire. If not, the Citizens United decision, the Obama campaign’s stated determination to buy another four years with its $1 billion, and the practices of elitist operatives like the Koch brothers and Big Pharma, who make sport of subverting Americans’ electorally stated desires, will further consolidate the corporate grip on each of us.
If we refuse to rewrite our electoral approach and bow to the “new normal,” we will forever relegate to memory the dreams which Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ted Kennedy took to their graves.
Progressives - and erstwhile “Liberals” - must decide, right now, if they are willing to let that happen.
(Chris Hedges’ book, Death of the Liberal Class, is among the membership premiums included with your Founding or Sustaining Membership in the NPA. Click here to learn more.)